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Know the West

Colorado voters hold the cards on renewable energy

In the state Legislature, utilities have had the upper hand — but now the choice is up to voters


For years, Colorado's clean-energy advocates sought support for a bill that would require the state's largest electric utilities to use renewable sources —such as wind, solar, and agricultural products, known as biomass — to generate a certain amount of the power they provide to customers.

Three years ago, State House Speaker Lola Spradley, a staunch Republican from rural Beulah, Colo., brought the bill to her colleagues in the Legislature. Working with Spradley — who believed the bill would help farmers and boost rural development — environmental and consumer groups gained support from the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, the Colorado Farm Bureau, independent bankers, ski companies, rural county commissioners, and eventually, executives from Xcel Energy, Colorado's largest energy provider.

But this spring, for the third year in a row, the bill failed to pass the Senate. Despite a number of compromises intended to broaden support, including one that would exempt rural cooperatives from the renewable energy standard, the bill lost by one vote. "The large rural electric associations were opposed to it," says Rick Gilliam, principal author of the bill and senior energy policy advisor with the Western Resource Advocates. "They put a lot of resources into (defeating) it, even though they wouldn't be affected by it."

Now, renewable energy advocates are trying something new: This summer, volunteers with Coloradans for Clean Energy, a nonprofit organization co-chaired by Spradley and U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D, set off across the state with petitions in hand, asking registered voters to support a renewable-energy initiative that all voters could decide on in November. While the state currently gets 2 percent of its energy from renewable sources, under the initiative, utilities with more than 40,000 customers would have to generate 10 percent of their electricity from wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and some hydroelectric sources by 2015.

More than 114,000 Coloradans signed the petition, and on Aug. 17, the state approved it — making Colorado the first state in the nation to place the choice for renewable energy directly before voters.

But despite growing support for renewable energy — a recent poll commissioned by Environment Colorado found that 75 percent of voters favor the initiative — energy providers are urging customers to vote against the amendment. Even Xcel, which is already the nation's second largest supplier of wind energy, is actively opposing the amendment. And despite the fact that farmers could earn money off both biomass and wind farming, the leaders of the rural electric cooperatives are vowing to fight again.

Rural electric cooperatives were once one of the most progressive movements in the nation — 60 years ago, farmers formed the co-ops to bring public utilities to rural areas — but those days are long gone, says Randy Udall, director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency and a cousin of Rep. Mark Udall. "Now, the rural electric cooperatives define service as providing coal power to people," he says. "The rural co-ops are totally in hock to coal interests; they are the coal lobby."

Forecasting the future

Now, Xcel, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, Colorado Mining Association and the Colorado Rural Electric Association (CREA), have formed Citizens for Sensible Energy Choices. The group claims the standard will cost customers up to $1.5 billion over the next 20 years — and it's pledging to spend millions of dollars to run television and radio ads opposing Amendment 37.

"Proponents (of the amendment) are artificially picking winners and losers in the energy debate," says Mac McLennan, a member of Citizens for Sensible Energy Choices, and the vice president for external affairs at Tri-State. "(They) say, 'We pick 10 percent by 2015, regardless of what it costs,' " he says. "We just shouldn't support an initiative (when) we don't know what its impacts will be."

Ray Clifton, CREA's executive director, thinks he knows what those impacts will be. "Our interpretation is that (the cost) will be spread among industrial, commercial and wholesale users." Four of CREA's 22 member cooperatives buy electricity from Xcel and two of those provide electricity to more than 40,000 customers. Clifton says the amendment will hit those two co-ops with a "double whammy."

But one of CREA's members has stood up against the statewide association. "Our polls have shown that there are a lot of people who want these types of technology pursued," says Dan McClendon, general manager of the Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA). "They're in the majority, and to fight (the amendment) doesn't make sense." This summer, DMEA adopted a resolution supporting renewable energy and protesting the use of CREA general funds to oppose renewable energy in general, and in particular, Amendment 37.

Randy Udall says the cooperatives may have missed their last chance to shape the standard. "These rural electric cooperatives torpedoed the reasonable bills (that advocates tried to pass through the Legislature)," he says. "Now, clean-energy advocates have said, 'Enough is enough. We exempted you, and you lobbied against us. Now, we're going to the voters.' "

The author is assistant editor of High Country News.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "Japanese cars may get all the good lanes."

Coloradans for Clean Energy www.renewableenergyyes.com, 303-573-5121

Xcel Energy www.xcelenergy.com, 1-800-328-8226

Colorado Rural Electric Association www.coloradorea.org, 303-455-2700