Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper often brings smiles to the faces of activists when he talks about climate change. But what will he do in his final 18 months in office now that President Donald Trump has pledged to jettison the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord?
Environmental groups have been asking that question in recent days after Trump’s polarizing announcement. True to form, Hickenlooper issued a statement only minutes after Trump stopped speaking in which he likened Trump’s decision to “ripping off your parachute when you should be pulling the ripcord.”
With that colorful metaphor, Hickenlooper reaffirmed Colorado’s commitment to pursue cleaner energy at a lower cost. “To do otherwise would be government malpractice,” he added.
But what will Hickenlooper specifically do to accelerate action?
“We are looking for measurable action, concrete action,” says Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado. “Yes, that’s what we’re looking for.”
Hickenloooper was unavailable for an interview for this story. Nor, as of Monday evening, had the governor announced whether he would commit Colorado to the U.S. Climate Alliance, a new organization announced last Thursday by the governors of California, Washington and New York after Trump’s announcement. Nine states plus Puerto Rico joined on Monday.
“I believe he is weighing several options,” Hickenlooper press secretary Jacque Montgomery said Monday evening.
By most measurements, Colorado has done much since state voters in 2004 adopted the nation’s first voter-driven renewable energy portfolio standard. The primary target of that RPS, Xcel Energy, which delivers electricity to 65 percent of Coloradans, left behind its early objections to quickly blow past that first 10 percent mandate and is now on target to achieve the latest 30 percent mandate ahead of the 2020 deadline.
Lower-priced natural gas and now cheaper renewables have hastened the transition. Wind is now the lowest cost energy and solar, often dismissed—because, after all, the sun doesn’t always shine—is now coming into its own. Last week, Tucson Electric announced a 20-year contract for solar-plus-storage at 4.5 cents a kilowatt-hour, lower than most fossil fuel plants.
Last week, Xcel announced that it is on track to have decarbonized its power 45 percent between 2005 and 2021 in its seven-state service territory from Minnesota to Colorado.
“That is way beyond what the Clean Power Plan contemplated for the nation,” points out former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter. The plan, now being reviewed by federal courts, specifies 32 percent reduced emissions from the electrical sector by 2030.
Ritter sees strong momentum continuing at the state and local level, despite Trump’s announcement. “It’s not going to come to a screeching stop,” he says. He points out that 85 to 90 percent of coal generation in the 11 Western grid states are due to be retired within 20 years.
But if there’s momentum, the vacuum in Washington D.C. elevates the need for state and local action, say leaders of Colorado-based environmental groups. They also believe that Trump’s thumbing of his nose at the Paris accord will “boomerang” at the state and local level, driving more robust efforts. They also argue the need for businesses to elevate their commitment to driving action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“It totally raises the stake everywhere around the West,” says Jon Goldin-Dubois, executive director of Western Resource Advocates. He cites a strong appetite among Coloradans to take accelerated action. “There’s a lot of space for us to take a stronger role.”
A 2016 survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications found that while only 53 percent of Coloradans believe that global warming is caused mostly by humans, 67 percent support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
Goldin-Dubois says it’s’ “too early to say” what Western Resource Advocates will be pushing in the next legislative session.
Little of substance has emerged from the Colorado Legislature on the energy front in the last several years. One prospective bill being mulled last winter would have nudged Xcel Energy to a 50 percent renewable goal. Lacking bipartisan support, it was doomed to defeat and never introduced.
Public utility commissions, including the PUC in Colorado, are a fulcrum for possibly far-reaching climate change policy. They have a reputation for stodginess. Ritter, in his capacity as director of the Center for the New Energy Economy, a think tank, meets often with representatives from utilities in the West.
“They are telling me that the technology is about 10 years ahead of where they (the utilities) are, and the utilities are about 10 percent ahead of what the utility commissioners understand,” says Ritter.
In Colorado, the PUC meets in a drab, brown windowless room in downtown Denver, across from the State Capitol. The three-member commission regulates Colorado’s investor-owned utilities, Xcel and Black Hills Electric. Like a baseball game, the proceedings are in the subtleties
But under Hickenlooper appointee Jeff Ackermann, the current PUC has started making significant moves. A salient decision, issued in April, makes the social costs of carbon a criterion in the long-range resource planning for Xcel. The net effect tilts the decision-making matrix from fossil fuel generation toward renewables.
The social costs—also called externalities— of carbon are important, says Leslie Glustrom, from Clean Energy Action, who has frequently testified before the PUC during the last 15 years. “Those external costs are absolutely real,” she says, citing forest fires, deeper drought and other weather-related calamities that climate models say will be elevated by a warming climate.
Glustrom also points to a component of social costs of carbon called the discount rate, or the present cost of long-term harms. She calls it a “huge deal.” The discount rate traditionally employed had favored fossil fuel generation, because of the discounted long-term costs or harms. A different approach will more accurately include longer-term harms and hence favor renewables.
The goal is to phase out aging coal plants beyond their normal retirements. The two units at Hayden, west of Steamboat Springs, would normally be retired in 2030 and 2036. Pawnee, at Brush, won’t be retired until 2041. Comanche 3, the plant put on line by Xcel in 2010, has a projected life to 2070.
The issue she identifies is how to close power plants stranded by new technologies. On their own, utilities have a stake in those power plants. How can Xcel make money when it’s invested in technology that increasingly looks like a Royal manual typewriter?
That’s the issue before Xcel—and other utilities, too, including Tri-State, which delivers power to a large geographic swath of mostly rural Colorado served by electrical co-operatives. The Colorado PUC has no authority over co-ops or municipal utilities.
Many cities, towns and counties are also moving rapidly, despite the pronouncements in Washington. While Boulder most often gets the headlines for its fight to get a divorce from Xcel or reform the utility to its core, more quietly Fort Collins has been attracting national attention.
Daniel Kreeger, executive director of the Association of Climate Change Officers, a national group, noted the creation in Ft. Collins of a climate economy advisor, whose job it is to examine proposed actions or inactions, and the costs or opportunities in Fort Collins relative to climate change.
“For a city of their size… they’re second to nobody,” says Kreeger.
Mayor Wade Troxel recently told a gathering in Aspen about the need to scale up practical solutions. “If it’s too top-down, that’s not good,” he said. “It has to make sense from a lot of different perspectives in your community.”
Kreeger points to an ironic twist. If Trump emboldens state and local action in many states across the country, it may force Congress to harmonize the actions and take action on its own.
It’s happened before. Federal laws governing clean air, clean water and, more recently, the Toxic Substances and Control Act, were preceded by state action. Enough state action creates, for lack of a better phrase, a Swiss cheese regulatory environment, and big businesses can’t be operating differently from one state to another,” says Kreeger. He sees efforts by California and New York in particular starting to create what may, with a critical mass, become a national will. But for that to happen, he says, the business sector needs to step up more prominently.
But Kreeger’s organization drives action from the local level. He was in Colorado recently to help launch a new group of towns, cities, and counties called the Compact of Colorado Communities. The 27 jurisdictions that attended the inaugural conference included familiar suspects, such as Boulder, but also Lakewood and Alamosa, even Wray.
The compact requires member jurisdictions to assign 5 to 25 employees each for training. Preferred are senior and mid-level managers.
“That will mean 300 people in the state of Colorado who understand what climate action looks like and how they can incorporate climate solutions into their day-to-day jobs,” said Ashley Perl, Aspen’s climate action manager, after the conference.
Compact members must also commit to a major action within two years, such as conducting an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. In such relatively small steps, the compact aims to get more local governments to join in a long run.
At the conference, which was held in Aspen, Ritter had noted that transportation has overtaken the power-generation sector as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. “It’s kind of getting away from us,” he said.
Brad Udall also pointed out that local jurisdictions have primacy over buildings. Because of the long lifetimes of the built environment, this sector poses the greatest challenge for greenhouse gas reduction.
“It will take a long, concerted effort to work on that, but that is within your wheelhouse,” said Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute. Local governments also have much control over transportation, he added.
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