Focus on the States: Colorado

In 1997, Colorado state legislator Mark Udall (D) introduced several bills designed to advance renewable energy, including net metering, fuel source disclosure and a “clean energy choice” pilot program — unquestionably a modest bill when compared to much of the renewables legislation drafted today. Udall’s bills were unceremoniously tossed out of committee, never reaching the full House.

Fast-forward seven years to 2004. Udall, by then a Member of the U.S. Congress, traversed Colorado with the state’s House Speaker, Republican Lola Spradley, campaigning for the nation’s first statewide renewable portfolio standard (RPS) ballot measure. Amendment 37, which required 10% renewable energy production for the state by 2015, passed comfortably that year. Now fast forward another couple of years. Putting renewables at the forefront of his campaign platform, Bill Ritter (D) won the election for Colorado governor last November. In his January inaugural address, renewable energy was his first policy utterance; Ritter told the audience Colorado needed to be bolder than any other state on renewables. Since Amendment 37’s enactment, meanwhile, the law has proven so popular with citizens and policymakers alike that the Colorado legislature may double the RPS to 20% this year. By most any measure, Colorado can now be considered one of the state leaders in renewable energy. How did the state progress so far so quickly? Let’s look at a few key activities that helped make possible today’s successes. Such successes were the result of collaboration, hard work and perseverance on the part of renewables advocates, regulators and legislators. The story behind how renewables became a priority in Colorado can provide insight into how advocates and decision makers in other states might move the renewables agenda forward. Gathering Steam The sea change with respect to renewables may seem like it happened over night, but in fact, it built over time. While notable events began taking place as far back as the late 1990s, one watershed moment came in 2001, when — thanks in part to advocacy from Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates and the Colorado Renewable Energy Society-the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) directed Xcel Energy to negotiate for a proposed 162-MW wind energy project. Significantly, the CPUC stated that its decision was based on “purely economic grounds.” That paved the way for consumers to first see some concrete benefits from wind. The PUC’s decision was validated when Xcel began reporting significant consumer cost savings each year beginning in 2004, after Colorado Green, the project resulting from the PUC decision, was built by GE Wind. In 2005 alone, Xcel said, consumers saved $9.75 million because of the cost stability of wind energy. Incremental Steps During those years, advocates and decision makers by no means had forgotten about the legislative side of the equation. In the 2001 Colorado legislature, business interests and renewable energy advocates worked together to pass SB 144 into law. Providing “property tax parity” for renewable energy projects and instructing the PUC to provide the “fullest possible consideration to the cost-effective implementation of clean new energy technologies,” SB 144 has proven valuable for project developers and renewable energy advocates alike since its enactment. Not exactly an earth-shattering RPS requirement, but it was a significant step forward. The next year, late in the 2002 Colorado legislative session, an RPS bill passed the Democrat-controlled Senate. The bill, SB 180, went to the House, where Republican Majority Leader Lola Spradley agreed to sponsor it, provided advocates could reach agreement with Xcel Energy, and that its provisions would be modified to be similar to the Texas RPS, signed into law in 1999 by then-Governor George W. Bush. Agreement was reached with Xcel, and the bill was modified to resemble the Texas RPS (primarily by setting megawatt targets instead of percentages). Spradley then helped SB 180 pass the Colorado House by a large margin in the waning days of the 2002 legislature. In the House floor debate, Spradley cited the important rural economic development potential that wind and renewable energy technologies offer. SB 180’s only remaining hurdle in 2002 was a routine concurrence vote in the Senate, where the sponsor, Senator Terry Phillips (D), was agreeable to the House changes. However, in the hectic final moments of the 2002 Senate, the bill was never brought up for a vote, resulting in its ultimate death. If at First You Don’t Succeed But all was not lost. SB 180 may have died, but the RPS concept hadn’t, thanks to the persistence of decision makers and advocates. Little did they know, though, the battle had only begun. In 2003, Spradley became House Speaker and handily succeeded in passing RPS legislation by another 2-1 House vote. Similar to 2002’s SB 180, the bill had strong support from a diverse range of business, agricultural and environmental interests. However, once again, it fell short by one vote in the 35-member Senate. Then in 2004, the untiring Speaker Spradley tried for a third year running. She sponsored HB 1273, which enjoyed support from the same mix of constituencies. This time, forces started converging: RPS advocates were now able to point to the tangible success story of the newly built Colorado Green, which had created local economic benefits and was saving ratepayers money. Once again, Spradley muscled the bill through the House, this time by a 2-1 margin — but yet again the bill fell one vote short in the Senate. It was time to take a different approach. After this third year of narrow legislative defeat, advocates decided to take the issue straight to voters, launching a petition drive for a renewable energy ballot initiative. At a May 2004 press conference, Spradley ceremonially inked the first signature on a petition to put the RPS on the November ballot. Spradley, with the help of Udall and activists from Environment Colorado and other groups, easily collected the necessary 67,000 signatures before the August deadline. The measure was placed on the ballot as Amendment 37, with renewable energy development goals more aggressive than in the legislature’s bills. Amendment 37 proponents extolled themes of rural economic development, cleaner energy resources and cost stability. Opponents, who were much smaller in numbers but boasted a much larger war chest, outspent proponents by a 2-1 margin, and along the way made the unsubstantiated claim the RPS would cost consumers $2 billion. But voters were not fooled: in the end, Amendment 37 passed by a 54-46% vote. Advocacy Doesn’t End But the work of the renewables advocate is never done, it seems, as implementation of Amendment 37 has not always gone quite as smoothly as some might have hoped. Proponents complained in 2005 that the Colorado PUC, which maintained its staunch “least-cost” posture, ignored the law’s provisions envisioning consumer benefits, fuel diversity and economic development opportunities. At the end of 2005, Xcel Energy, which is the largest purchaser of wind power in the U.S., announced it was negotiating the acquisition of 775 MW of new wind energy in Colorado — but at the same time said it was acquiring the power because of its cost competitiveness and not in response to Amendment 37 requirements. Nonetheless, Xcel noted that this new wind would put the company in compliance with Amendment 37 through at least 2014. The new projects are slated to be online by the end of 2007. That brings us back to the present. Proponents of Amendment 37 who had hoped for a fuller implementation of the new law are heartened by the election of Ritter, who made the “new energy economy” one of his key campaign issues. Clearly, Colorado voters are now behind renewables. Ritter vowed to advance wind and renewable energy aggressively during his governorship, and understands the importance of transmission and of accounting for the many benefits of wind and renewables. So going forward, Colorado has a supportive governor in Bill Ritter and a legislature led by supporters of renewable energy development. They are expected to work together on their stated common goal of making renewable energy development a priority in Colorado. This includes addressing transmission deficiencies, making the RPS even more aggressive, and taking steps that Mark Udall began as a state legislator a decade ago. Craig Cox is the executive director of the Interwest Energy Alliance, a non-profit trade association which brings together industry and non-governmental advocacy groups to help facilitate a consensus-based approach to project development throughout Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. In 2003, Cox led the multi-stakeholder effort to establish the Colorado Wind Working Group, which later became the agriculture- and rural-based Colorado Renewable Energy Forum. This article first appeared in the January 2007 edition of WindLetter, the monthly newsletter of the American Wind Energy Association.

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