Renewable Power's Growth in Colorado Presages National Debate

These wind turbines are a part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Wind Farm near Boulder, Colo.
These wind turbines are a part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Wind Farm near Boulder, Colo. (By Jack Dempsey -- Associated Press)
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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

DENVER -- When Colorado voters were deciding whether to require that 10 percent of the state's electricity come from renewable fuels, the state's largest utility fought the proposal, warning that any shift from coal and natural gas would be costly, uncertain and unwise.

Then a funny thing happened. The ballot initiative passed, and Xcel Energy met the requirement eight years ahead of schedule. And at the government's urging, its executives quickly agreed to double the target, to 20 percent.

In Colorado -- a state historically known for natural gas and fights over drilling -- wind and solar power are fast becoming prominent parts of the energy mix. Wind capacity has quadrupled in the past 18 months, according to Gov. Bill Ritter (D), and Xcel has become the largest provider of wind power in the nation.

The politics and economics of energy are shifting here in ways that foretell debates across the country as states create renewable-energy mandates and the federal government moves toward limiting carbon emissions. One advocate calls Colorado "ground zero" for the looming battle over energy.

Despite a continuing boom, oil and gas companies here are on the defensive. They are spending heavily as they try to prevent the repeal of as much as $300 million in annual tax breaks that would be shifted to investment in renewables and other projects.

The industry, already facing a rebellion among some longtime supporters angered by its toll on the environment, also finds itself in a fight against new regulations designed to protect wildlife and public health from the vast expansion in drilling. Beyond the merits, the proposals reflect the strengthened hand of environmentalists and their friends who feel that the fossil-fuel companies have held sway too long.

"Now is a terrific time for renewables to launch. I hope they get all the capital they need, and all the great minds and talent. But I don't want it to come at the expense of the oil and gas industry," said Meg Collins, president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. "As goes Colorado, so goes the West, as far as this energy policy debate."

State leaders are thrilled with the economic benefits that have come with the hundreds of new research and manufacturing jobs in pursuit of alternative power. Yet the fledgling renewables industry is also facing challenges, from a desire for tax credits of its own to a need for a stronger transmission grid that will make power more portable.

"The future in Colorado is building wind farms in wheat fields," said Ritter, a former Denver prosecutor, recalling the 2006 campaign pitch that helped carry him into the governor's office. "Quite frankly, it's how we should have been thinking for 10 years."

Ten years ago, Xcel began offering wind-generated electricity, but it was a niche market for eco-conscious customers willing to pay extra. That changed in a significant way after 2004, when Xcel lost the referendum fight.

After legislative efforts failed, proponents of renewable energy turned to the ballot that year. The initiative, Amendment 37, required the state's biggest utilities to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. Advocates found themselves facing off against Xcel, which said it feared for its bottom line.

"We ended up opposing that amendment. In retrospect, I wish we hadn't," said Frank Prager, Xcel's vice president for environmental policy. He said utility companies are inherently conservative, yet find themselves facing a transformation in an industry that, as he put it, has changed little since Thomas Edison's time.


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