Colorado Voters May Push for More Renewable Power

by Shelley Schlender

Oct 28, 2004 Boulder CO - Energy has not gotten much attention during this presidential campaign, but that doesn't mean that there is no interest in it especially with the price of oil now topping $50 a barrel. Shrewd businessmen are talking about putting wind turbines on top of old oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and sending the power ashore. A national hardware retailer has begun selling solar energy devices.

Also, US automakers are scrambling to put gas-electric vehicles on the market to compete with popular imported hybrids. More than 15 states now require utility companies to include a higher percent of alternative energy in their power mix. Colorado's legislature has rejected such efforts, but interest in wind and solar power is gaining momentum. Citizens have put an initiative on the November ballot that would increase the use of renewable energy in the state.

At an energetic rally in a big old red-brick schoolhouse near downtown Boulder, Patricia Limerick invites the crowd to join her in an energy cheer.

This rally is to energize support for Amendment 37, a citizen's initiative on the Colorado ballot. If it passes, it will require sunny, windy Colorado to get 10 percent of its electric energy from solar, wind, geothermal and biomass energy by 2015, with nearly half coming from solar power. Today, only about 2 percent of Colorado's energy is renewable. So as speakers take the podium, they praise the amendment's goals.

Rally Speaker: "You know, it's not rocket science. What we're pushing is really kind of reasonable. New York just announced a 25 percent renewable energy standard. The real precedent here is that people are actually going to be voting on this. And that is extremely important."

But opponents of Amendment 37 want Colorado voters to hear about the unreasonable side of renewable energy, they say consumers would end up paying more for their electricity. A group called Citizens for Sensible Energy Choices is running $1 million media campaign that includes radio spots like this one.

Radio Ad: "The Rocky Mountain News warns that Amendment 37 would put energy bills at risk. Does it ever. Amendment 37 is the largest unfunded mandate ever put before Colorado voters, and it's wrapped in a blank check. Don't put our energy bills at risk. Vote no on Amendment 37."

The opponents say building wind farms and extra transmission lines, installing photovoltaic cells, and maintaining everything could cost millions, and the amendment does not set aside any money to pay for that, so any extra costs might be paid by consumers in the form of higher energy bills. The group raising these concerns, Citizens for Sensible Energy Choices, gets most of its funding from Colorado's leading energy provider, Xcel, and other state utilities companies.

According to alternative energy advocate, Hunter Lovins, the utilities are fighting hard to defeat the amendment because this is the nation's first citizen-sponsored initiative on energy, and they fear it might start a groundswell of determined citizens who push for more renewables.

"If this passes, it will be a signal to the entire nation that the people want renewables. If this fails, it will also be a signal," he notes.

As the president of Natural Capitalism, a group that promotes sustainable energy, Ms. Lovins says that harnessing a virtually infinite source of power that does little harm to the environment will generate a more vibrant economy. Relying more on solar and wind power, she says, will create more higher-paying, skilled labor jobs, to meet the demand for creating, installing and servicing renewable energy production. A report by the Renewable Energy Policy Project supports her assertion, projecting that renewable technologies will employ over five times more workers than those needed to produce an equal amount of energy from fossil fuels. With all these possibilities, Ms. Lovins criticizes traditional utilities for clinging to the past.

"They are going to be trying to keep old technologies as the way to get our energy, which is why the utilities have put together a $10 million war chest to try to defeat this," she says. "They see this as a key vote. If we fail on this one, if we believe their story that solar is too expensive, we will be stuck with technologies that actually cost us jobs."

Colorado ranks 8th in the nation for production of renewable energy and boasts America's 5th largest wind farm, near Lamar. The state's utility companies say they are not opposed to renewables, just the rapid transition mandated by Amendment 37. According to Jeanie Frickey, spokesperson for the industry-funded opposition, the cost of developing and implementing the new technology faster than the market can bear is unacceptable.

"Industry estimates show it anywhere from $500 million to topping $2 billion," she says. "If we have to put in backup systems and transmission lines to get the electricity to our customers, all of those are factors in our increased costs."

But many voters have heard this argument before. They remember that, when the Lamar wind farm was proposed, Xcel warned that it would cost too much and instead, pushed for a gas-powered plant. As the group that oversees Xcel's energy charges for the state, the Colorado Utilities Commission did an independent analysis, and determined that wind power would cost less than gas. So they forced Xcel to build the farm, which was completed in 2003. Now, the 108 wind turbines in Lamar produce enough clean power to run 50,000 homes, and Xcel itself has stated that the farm will save Coloradans over $4 million a year.

"We want to put our energy, pun intended, on the sustainable future," says Catherine Greener is the Principal of Commercial and Industrial Services for the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank on sustainable energy.

Ms. Greener is optimistic that many private industry leaders are moving toward renewables and that they'll move in that direction even faster, if consumers give the go-ahead, through purchases and citizen initiatives like Amendment 37.

Back at the rally, excitement mounts as the speakers push for renewable energy. Most polls show a majority of voters in the state support Amendment 37, so it may soon become the nation's first citizen-sponsored mandate, powering the alternative energy movement.

Source: Voice of America