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October 29, 2007

Colorado's New Energy Economy: The Path Forward

On Tuesday I will be attending what should be an excellent conference in Denver sponsored by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, the Governor’s Energy Office, and the Office of Consumer Counsel. The three state agencies will partner with the non-profit organization Energy Outreach Colorado for what is being billed as a "First-of-its-kind conference" (not my word choice, theirs) to examine current and future energy issues in Colorado. State and local elected officials will be joined by academics, energy leaders from various government agencies, investment bankers, energy industry representatives (both clean and dirty), and non-profit organizations to explore the policies, incentives, and economic impact of transitioning to a future of clean tech and renewable energy in Colorado.

Recapitulating on one of the central themes of his campaign stump speech, gubernatorial inaugural address, and 2007 State of the State speech, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter will deliver the morning plenary address on how his energy initiative coupled with recently passed legislation will be implemented to help construct Colorado's "New Energy Economy." The lunchtime keynote address will be given by NREL Principal Engineer Chuck Kutscher.

Other notable speakers, presenters, and moderators include Richard C. Kelly, Chairman of the Board, President & CEO of Xcel Energy; Greg Wasserman, Vice-President of Alternative Energy Investing for Goldman Sachs; Patty Limerick, Chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado; and Matt Baker, Director of Environment Colorado.

Photo Credit: Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau

October 27, 2007

BC Advisory Council Endorses Feed-in Tariff for Renewables

An advisory council to British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell has issued a report suggesting that the province adopt feed-in tariffs (FITs) to generate growth in new sources of renewable energy. The report suggests that the province should adopt:
“Legislation that governs the energy system mandates that higher rates be paid for power supplied by deploying emerging technologies. This guaranteed rate allows for the development of the project. As the technology becomes more viable, the incentive rates are lowered until over time that particular technology becomes commercially competitive."
FITs have had a tremendous impact on growing renewable energy production throughout Europe, but in Germany especially. The German Renewable Energy Sources Act introduced in 2004 mandated such a system. High electricity rates coupled with guaranteed purchase agreements have contributed to the explosion of micro-scale wind and solar energy in Germany. According to the report:
“Appropriate feed-in tariffs can be a powerful stimulus to the industry. Of all the different measures used to encourage development, tariffs have been the most successful at developing renewables markets and domestic industries, and achieving the associated social, economic, environmental, and security benefits."
Presently, the only hope for a FIT-type policy mechanism is in the Michigan state legislature, where such a bill has been proposed. As it currently stands, legislatures in the U.S. have clearly favored renewables portfolio standards (RPS) as the policy mechanism of choice. I believe the RPS is a step in the right direction, but the exclusions for municipalities and electric co-ops make it so that a goal of 15-20% renewable energy only applies to about 60% of the electricity purchasing public. But these mandatory quotas are creating a stable arena for large-scale utilities to continue to dominate energy production and transmission.

For more on feed-in tariffs and renewable energy policy in Canada, the U.S., and Europe, visit Paul Gipe's Wind-Works page.

Photo Credit: Paul Gipe

October 18, 2007

Solar Power: Front and Center During World Series

When the Colorado Rockies host their first-ever World Series homestand next week against their still to be determined AL foes, there will be flashing coming from more sources than the leather gloves of their pesky infielders. The team will also have a chance to flash the lights of their new solar-powered LED scoreboard. The project at Denver's Coors field is the first commercial-scale solar electric power system to be installed in a Major League Baseball park. As the result of a partnership between the Rockies and Xcel Energy, the system should produce more than enough electricity to power the scoreboard over the course of a year. The sleek SunPower solar modules are grid-tied and integrated with a flat-panel monitoring system that allows fans at the park to observe real-time system performance and scoreboard energy use (the same real-time data has also been made available online here). Thus far, the project has been a net exporter of 2200 kWh of electricity since the system was installed in April.

Not to be one-upped by corporate interests, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter was eager to take some credit and quick to congratulate the Rockies for their leadership as he called upon MLB, the NFL and "stadium owners throughout the nation to follow the example we've set by deploying solar at Coors Field" (emphasis added). I am not completely certain who the "we" Ritter is referring to but, I suppose that last year's passage of a bill that doubled Colorado's renewable energy standard from 10 to 20%, Gov. Ritter is entitled to some credit-claiming. The renewable requirement has thus far meant that investor-owned utilities like Xcel have been eager to buy renewable energy credits and sign long-term power purchase agreements from nearly any energy provider.

Installed in April by Independent Power Systems of Boulder, CO, the project consists of an array of 46 high-efficiency SunPower 215 watt modules that cover what was a mostly open walkway below the bleacher section. In a bit of serendipity, the girders over the walkway happened to slope a perfect 36 degrees. "It's as if they designed the stadium for a 10-kilowatt solar system," said Tony Boniface, president of Independent Power. But, because the panels are in straight-away centerfield, the contractors had to conduct a "glare analysis" to ensure the reflections wouldn't blind batters. "We didn't want to give slumping hitters an excuse," Boniface said. Considering how the Rockies are playing and hitting the ball, the panels do not seem to be causing too much of a glare problem (at least lately).

Consider how much electricity a modern sports stadium draws from the grid to power the extensive infrastructures of lighting and climate control systems, cooking stations, hot water, refrigeration and (in Colorado's case) humidors. Now consider the light being emitted by the small scoreboard in the center of the first image as compared to the other sources of light in the first image. Skeptics might charge that the solar-powered scoreboard exemplifies greenwashing, as it is nothing more than an expensive billboard that creates the illusion of corporate and social responsibility, while masking the more difficult problems related to demand and consumption.

Part of me sides with the skeptic on this one, but I also see that this is not only a smart marketing move by all of the parties involved (especially if they buy adtime or if they are featured in one of those little side-line stories), but that it has some positive political and social effects as well. The high-visibility of the solar array, located in what is essentially a public good, combined with the interactivity of the installation educates people by allowing them to see the costs and benefits of renewable energy generation firsthand (Although I'll admit that I found a little humor whilst looking at the small scoreboard within the larger context of flashing lights, fireworks and thumping music).

[Note: My original intent was to post this on the day after the NL pennant-clinching game, but I needed a day to recover after a fit of revelry that kept us from returning home from the game until quite late.]

Photo Credits:
1. Tim Hurst
2. Independent Power Systems

October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day: Take Back Your Mailbox

So, today is Blog Action Day, where thousands of bloggers have signed up to write about issues related to ecology, cleaning up the environment, climate change, etc. Do you know that tired saying, "every day is earth day"? Well, for me, and many like me, every day is Blog Action Day (at least every day I post a blog!). Nonetheless, my contribution requires some context. Do you remember what it was like before caller ID? My first mobile phone was not exactly what I would call "cool" by today's standards (or even yesterday's standards). This beauty was about the size of a small loaf of bread with this five inch rubber antenna and a goofy belt-clip assembly that made me look like a cop when I was wearing it. But to me, all that was a mere pittance to pay; for this this two pound plastic box of wires and circuits had caller ID.

Why did I love caller ID so much? It never seemed right to me that, just because someone has a phone means that they also have some obligation or responsibility to engage anyone (or anything) at the other end of the line. Now with the advent of caller ID and the National Do Not Call Registry we have the ability to screen out most telephone solicitation and accept the calls that we want.

Now, in that same vein, we are seeing opportunities to install sort of caller ID for our mailbox. The Direct Marketing Association has a little known program for people to get their name off of all those mailing lists, thus clearing up some space in your mailbox and ultimately reducing paper in landfills. One recent study has shown that paper products amount to nearly 25% of all waste going into area landfills (second only to construction waste which makes up 31%). That number might seem high, but I should add (not proudly) that according to Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Colorado is ranked 38th when compared to the other states, in terms of recycling rate.

Many folks might consider Coloradans largely to be the crunchy-green types, well educated, socially and ecologically conscious,etc. But I'm sorry to say that most of that is a stereotype (although a shift is underway). Sure, there are certain enclaves throughout the state that would be considered more eco-friendly than others, like Summit County, Telluride, Crested Butte, Steamboat, etc. And there are also a few bastions of progressive thinkers in the university towns of Boulder and to a lesser degree Fort Collins. But by and large, Colorado has traditionally been a state where individual freedom dominates all and there are very few laws that mandate recycling. In fact there are many areas in the state where the garbage hauler has no recycling programs or the county landfills only accept the bare minimum of post-consumer recyclable materials. Simply put, too much stuff is being thrown out, and there is really no such thing as "out".

Thankfully, another service has appeared recently on the radar screen that allows you to pick and choose which ones of the hundreds (thousands?) of catalogs you want and which you don't. The service is called Catalog Choice, and it lets you screen out even more of that crap that is all to often ending up in landfills across the country. So my piece of advice for the day, especially in this season of the holiday catalog, click on the link below and started. It's free, easy and there are no strings attached.

Photo Source: Low Impact Living

October 11, 2007

Call for Papers: Ecopolitics Online Journal

Dr. Liam Leonard, a faculty member in the Dep't of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and editor at Ecopolitics Online has announced a call for papers for the inaugural edition of the new online peer-reviewed journal. The theme of the first edition is, “Utopias, ecotopias and green communities: Exploring the patterns of resettlement and living of green idealists.”

According to the announcement on their website: Twice yearly, Ecopolitics Online will publish a collection of peer-reviewed papers from an international pool of environmental academics and researchers. The intent of the journal is to address environmental issues with a multidisciplinary approach, "which incorporates politics, sociology, geography, globalisation, development, economics, philosophy, ecology, law and science." The call for papers suggests that:

"Contributors should explore case studies from a broad and international range of community idealism and cooperative building. Rural resettlement, communes, syndicates, workers’ co ops, environmental communities and educational institutions are included within this broad thematic area of focus."
So even though this is an Irish publication, international scholarship is not only welcome but it seems as though it is encouraged. For more information about submissions, follow this link.

Photo Credits: 1. The Derrybrien Windfarm in County Galway is comprised of 71 Vestas V52 wind turbines and is currently the largest terrestrial wind farm in Ireland (source:

October 9, 2007

Germany to Phase Out Coal Industry; U.S. to Not.

The German government is making headway on a proposal that would seek to totally phase out the country's entire coal mining industrial sector by 2018. The proposal, which is subject to approval by both houses of the German Parliament, will ensure structured

compensation payments for the country's 34,000 coal workers. The German Social Democratic Party has secured a review of the plan in 2012 before it goes into full effect. This reflexive approach is intended to safeguard the mining industry, which was largely responsible for the success of the Social Democrats in the 19th century.

How is Germany able to take such aggressive steps towards eliminating coal? For one thing, the cost of coal-mining in Germany is making the practice economically unattractive. Stringent safety measures, high labor costs and the increased expense to dig deeper to find untapped coal seams has driven the cost of German coal to about 180 euros ($250) per ton, more than three times the global market price. Second, and not completely unrelated, the German feed-in tariff which I have written about here, mandates that utilities enter into purchase agreements for any producer of renewable electricity to the grid.

The formidable presence of the Greens in the German Bundestag has had the ultimate effect of 'devolutionizing ' electricity generation and revolutionizing grid interconnectivity. Now, it looks like their aggressive push for renewable energy sources will help anchor renewable energy sources as the essential ingredient in the German energy mix.

So, with that said, what is the future of coal in the U.S.? Well, put it this way, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the amount of coal development in a country and the number of Green Party representatives in that country's legislature (Congress, Bundestag, Parliament, etc.). The preceding assertion would certainly need to be tested to find a statistically significant correlation, but the point is that there is virtually no third party presence, Green or otherwise, in the American system of interest representation and there is also no significant political efforts toward phasing out coal development.

In fact, one reporter from the Voice of America, has suggested that "like it or not, coal is here to stay." I think those types of blanket statements can be problematic, especially when we are addressing the mobilization of political action. Reporting that something cannot be changed can have the effect of suppressing thought and action. Yes, coal is currently the number one source of electricity in the U.S. And yes, the most powerful coal advocate's national political action committee CoalPAC donates tremendous sums of money to the campaign coffers of legislators in both parties in hopes of perpetuating the 'we need coal' myth. But one of the beauties of democracy is that just because it is here now, does not mean it will necessarily be here later.

Despite the fact that coal is often projected to be our primary source of electricity for some time to come (and I generally agree with this statement), asserting that it must, or accepting such assertions as a predestined certainty precludes the possibility of any discussion of other alternatives. Some will just shrug and accept their perceived reality of a coal-based future, because that is what the 'experts' are saying. Fortunately there are increasing numbers of people and organizations that are not limiting their discussion to the alternatives that provide no alternative

October 4, 2007

Wind and Hydro Power in Colorado: The Irony of the 'Event' as Politics (part I)

On any other day, Xcel Energy would have been basking in the sun. On any other day Xcel officials would have been standing proudly alongside Colorado Governor Bill Ritter and executives from energy conglomerate BP and global financiers Babcock & Brown to announce the grand opening of the new Cedar Creek wind farm in rural Weld County, CO. But Xcel had another issue launching them to the front pages of newspapers across the country, and that was the death of five contractors in a freak fire at a hydro-electric plant in the mountains west of Denver. The ironic timing of these two occurrences is quite striking.

The intent of this piece is not to disparage Xcel directly (a company that has invested rather aggressively in the development of renewable energy resources in MN, CO and NM), rather to illuminate more broadly, the massive social costs of modern electrification -- costs that are not shared equally by all of those who benefit from them -- especially the costs of centralized energy distribution versus distributed (or dispersed) energy distribution.

The language of efficiency has dominated the politics of energy development, but the language of efficiency does not dominate the entire system of accounting for energy. We are efficient in terms of extracting and producing the supply, but there seems to be much less focus on efficiency in terms of demand. Not only that, but we often achieve efficiency by simply not counting all parts of the equation. Take, for example, the economist's prized value of "cost-effectiveness", which is determined by some calculus of cost-benefit ratios and analyses.
The problem is that cost is all too often measured only in terms of real dollars which can have the real effect of obscuring so-called 'externalities' (i.e. mercury pollutants, widening economic disparities, the buildup of heat-trapping gasses, and dead miners).

Meanwhile, in what I am certain ended up being a rather anticlimactic opening ceremony at Colorado's newest windfarm, Governor Bill Ritter flipped a switch that essentially did nothing. While BP and Babcock & Brown have erected several of the 1MW+ turbines, they have yet to connect them to the grid. The farm will not produce any energy until the transmission lines have been hung, thereby bringing the generated windpower to Xcel customers in Colorado. And even though the suit-wearing participants in the grand opening believed their ceremonious but meaningless coalescence would produce a powerful political statement, the event would have been much more "cost-effective" politically, had the freaking turbines been plugged in when Ritter "flipped the switch."

The maximum or "nameplate" capacity of the $480 million wind project is approximately 300MW, which could bring electricity to as many as 90,000 homes in Colorado. However, very few of these homes will be located particularly close to Cedar Creek, most of the power will go to Xcel customers subscribing in the Denver metro area. Theoretically, the green juice goes to customers who have signed up via Xcel's Green Power program but, in actuality, once electricity is generated and transmitted to the grid, accounting for it becomes difficult, it really just becomes completely indistinguishable from any other sources contributing to the grid. So, I suppose that I would accept the argument these locals may in fact get the electricity that is actually produced at Cedar Creek, but that is beside the essential point here. Relatively few of those who will see these 274 turbines spread over 32,000 acres (50 sq. mi.) of eastern Weld County on a daily basis (or several times per day) will actually receive any direct economic benefits of them. Certainly there will be landowners (largely ranchers and farmers) who will receive lease payments from BP and B&B, and there will be ancillary contributions to the local economy when technicians visit gas stations, supply stores, restaurants, etc.; but these pale in comparison to the economic boon to the entire community if they were owned cooperatively by the local rural electric association. It is these REA members and electricity consumers who will undoubtedly make visual contact with one or more of these turbines per day, and whether like the sight of the new turbines or not, most will not receive any sort of compensation. Nor do the members of the REA even get the personal satisfaction of knowing that they are doing something about producing renewable energy, because the money that they pay for their electricity goes mostly to the coal-happy Tri-State Generation and Transmission (which oddly serves FOUR states not three).

Now that I have hopefully gotten your attention, I realize that this post has gotten too long, and still haven't sewn up a coherent argument about how all of this is ironic..., please stay tuned for part II!

Photo Credits:
American Wind Energy Association, The 165-MW Colorado Green Wind Farm, Prowers County, Colorado.
2. Windustry