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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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Voters rejected the utility industry's arguments and approved the measure, making Colorado the first state to mandate renewable-energy use at the ballot box. Today, legislatures in more than 25 states have set prescribed levels, known formally as "renewable portfolio standards."

"It was one of those cases where the public was ahead of the politicians," said Tom Plant, Ritter's top energy strategist.

Once Xcel executives began to come to terms with the new rules, they discovered that federal tax credits made wind power affordable, especially in relation to rising natural gas prices. The cost of wind power is relatively constant and provides a hedge against future emissions regulation, such as the cap-and-trade approach favored by presidential candidates Barack Obama (D) and John McCain (R).

"It was good for the system," Xcel's Prager said, referring to the utility's mix of energy sources, "and it was good for the customer."

By the end of 2007, Xcel had met Amendment 37's goal and endorsed Ritter's request to double it to 20 percent by 2020. That measure passed the Colorado legislature easily: With the utility on board and public sentiment clear, the bill collected 50 sponsors in the 65-member House.

Executives at publicly traded Xcel stress their twin desires to make money and to insulate the company from the risks of unproven technology. As Prager put it during an interview in the company's downtown Denver headquarters: "It's absolutely essential that the state offer us something that makes it worth our while to be green."

Amendment 37 allows utilities to collect a fee from customers to invest in renewable fuels; it averages $12.72 a year for a typical homeowner with a monthly bill of $73. When the renewables goal doubled last year, so did the fee. Prager said the fee has provided Xcel $37.6 million between March 2006 and July 2008 for capital investment in wind and solar.

Colorado is adding wind-power capacity at a higher rate than any other state, its hundreds of turbines delivering one gigawatt of generating power at the end of 2007. That is triple the total of 12 months earlier. Six states produce more than one gigawatt with wind, with Texas far in front and California second.

Solar power remains a small part of the equation in Colorado, in part because concentrated solar generation is expensive. Xcel is sponsoring an 80-acre field of photovoltaic panels in the San Luis Valley, a project expected to provide 8.2 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 1,500 homes. But only 4 percent of Xcel's renewable megawattage is required to come from solar.

Meanwhile, Xcel's latest plan, filed with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, calls for retiring two of its aging coal-fired power generators.

"We've reached this critical point where we're seeing the deployment of these technologies accelerate," said John Nielsen, an energy analyst with the nonprofit environmental group Western Resource Advocates. "There was slow progress over the last decade, and you're now seeing this tipping point."

Among the signs is the arrival of Vestas, a Danish wind turbine company, which announced Friday the construction of two more manufacturing plants and 1,350 new jobs, bringing the company's total in Colorado to 2,450. ConocoPhillips announced this year that it will locate its alternative-fuels research operation in the state. The Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory is adding 100 jobs.


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