Is 100% Renewable Energy a Promise for Today or a Goal for the Future? | Colorado Country Life Magazine

Is 100% Renewable Energy a Promise for Today or a Goal for the Future?

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

It hardly seems possible, but we are gearing up for yet another political season. In Colorado, candidates are positioning themselves for the primaries this month and the general election that will follow in November. The ads have already begun to pop up on television and social media, and I’ve heard more than one candidate promise “100 percent renewable energy” if elected.

As you probably know, one of the functions of the Colorado Rural Electric Association is to protect the interests of Colorado’s electric cooperatives in the political arena. We keep a close eye on the elections since the winners in the state legislative races, as well as the governor’s race, will have an important role in determining the future of energy policy in Colorado. Those energy policy decisions, in turn, will likely impact how electric co-ops deliver electricity to rural Colorado and how much it will cost.

Electric co-ops have a straightforward mission as local, community-focused electric utilities: We strive to provide the safest, most reliable, most affordable electricity that we can to over 70 percent of the land mass of Colorado. The cooperative business model has been extremely successful in meeting these goals for over 80 years, even though our service territories are sparsely populated.

We understand that today, providing safe, reliable and affordable electricity is not enough. We also strive to generate and distribute electricity in an environmentally-responsible manner, and that objective is often included in the mission statements of co-ops around the state. To that end, co-ops have spent many millions of dollars over the last couple of decades retrofitting power plants and diversifying our power supply portfolios to reduce emissions and protect the environment.

While those investments in pollution control equipment dramatically reduced the amount of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulates that are emitted from power plants, the plants that use coal and natural gas to generate electricity continue to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Some candidates believe that electric utilities, including electric co-ops, should shut down all power plants that use fossil fuels now. They argue that the power from those plants can be replaced by “100 percent renewable energy.”

Electric co-ops support adding more renewable energy to our power portfolios. We have used renewable hydropower to generate electricity for decades. As the price of electricity generated from wind and solar resources comes down, co-ops are integrating more and more of these resources into their power supply mix.

There are a multitude of co-op projects around Colorado that add renewable resources each year. These projects include community solar gardens, utility-scale solar farms, net-metered rooftop solar, micro-hydro power plants, small- and large-scale wind farms, landfill and coal mine methane recovery facilities, biomass and more. Colorado’s electric co-ops are continually developing innovative ways to generate electricity with fewer carbon emissions.

That said, our most important responsibility is to keep the lights on for co-op member-consumers 24/7/365. That’s right: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, we’re balancing a complex system of power plants and distribution systems to make sure you have electricity whenever you need it.

Can we accomplish this with nothing but wind and solar power? The simple answer is that we can’t today. As much as we support renewable energy, it’s still intermittent. Battery technology is moving ahead by leaps and bounds and may soon provide a cost-effective complement to intermittent renewables, but for now we have to continue to use power plant technology that provides electricity on a constant basis that is predictable and dispatchable. That means producing electricity not only from renewables, but also from power plants that run on fossil fuels.

I suspect most of the candidates running on a platform of “100 percent renewable energy” say that in the context of an aspirational goal. That’s fine, but the reality is that everyone needs affordable and reliable electricity 24/7/365 and we have to use the tools we have available today to make that happen.

But we’re not done. Colorado’s electric co-ops will continue to innovate and incorporate more renewable resources into our power supply mix. We’re committed to keeping the lights on in the most reliable, affordable and responsible manner possible.