Renewable law leaves the gate

  When Colorado voters approved Amendment 37 in 2004, most had no idea how long it would take for the state’s renewable standards to go into effect.

More than a year later, the state’s Public Utilities Commission finally released the rules implementing the law, which requires the state’s largest utilities to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

The original law, as passed by voters, would have required power companies Xcel Energy and Aquila, two municipal utilities, and three rural electrical cooperatives to rely increasingly on wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and some hydropower (HCN, 5/2/05: The Winds of Change). All told, it would have applied to more than 2.2 million customers in the state.

But even before the PUC released the rules in mid-December, two rural cooperatives exempted themselves from the law through a vote of their members. Intermountain Rural Electric Association and its 127,000 members in central Colorado opted out last spring; this fall, United Power and its 56,000 members along the Front Range did the same. "We looked at the voting results (for the standard) in our region, and it was pretty split," says Heidi Stortz, United’s marketing and communication coordinator. She says that when the board of directors took a "fiscal look" at the law and found unanswered questions, it recommended that its members vote to opt out.

"That’s not exactly a fair and balanced approach to getting the word out," says Ken Regelson, a Boulder-based sustainable energy consultant. But Regelson does see cause for hope: Colorado Springs Utilities plans to offer solar rebates, and, as of Jan. 1, Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, has implemented a solar rebate. Customers with small photovoltaic systems receive rebates; any excess energy they produce is credited to their next month’s bill.

For the second year in a row, Xcel has also announced new programs to add more renewable sources to its portfolio. Last January, the company said it would seek 400 megawatts of new wind projects by the end of 2005. But the company added only 60 megawatts of wind power, bringing its total wind capacity to 282 megawatts — enough to power between 112,800 and 282,000 homes (HCN, 12/12/05: Forget idealism).

"The developers could not find financing, turbines were unavailable, and they were unable to meet the conditions of our contract," says Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz. Aggravating circumstances, says Stutz, is the erratic manner in which Congress extends the federal production tax credit for wind projects. Wind developers get a 1.8 cent per kilowatt hour tax credit, but because Congress typically establishes the credit for a year or two at a time, it must be renewed periodically — and its impending expiration has halted many a wind project.

Now that Congress has renewed the tax credit until the end of 2007, Xcel has released a proposal for 775 megawatts of new wind projects. "When all this power comes online, we’ll reach the state renewable standard through 2014," says Stutz, "and Colorado will be in the top five states for wind production."