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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


Robin said...

Hi, Tim,

Thanks for your comment on Cleantech Collective. Please use our autopost feature to include your own blog and keep up the good work.

F. A. Peck said...

Good observation on the difference between efficiency in production and the different matter of (in)efficient distribution--and consumption if I might add.