Xcel energizes Western Colorado interest in renewables

An existing solar farm in western Garfield County.

Holy Cross Energy in September committed to an ambitious plan to reduce 70 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Now, just last week, Xcel Energy announced that it would reduce emissions by 80 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2030, and rely solely on renewable energy by 2050.

Xcel moving to higher renewable mix in its energy production will make it easier for Holy Cross, a Glenwood Springs-based regional electric cooperative, to reach its own goals.

“We stand on their shoulders. If they’re shoulders get higher, we can get higher ourselves,” said Bryan Hannegan, president and CEO of Holy Cross Energy.

Holy Cross went further than Xcel to promise increased renewable energy “in a way that wasn’t unduly costly to the consumer,” Hannegan said.

Local sustainable energy advocacy group Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER) will cohost a roundtable Thursday to discuss the recent commitments and what it could mean for the Valley. Elected officials from Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties, as well as representatives from Xcel and Holy Cross, will participate in the discussions.

Part of the energy story in Garfield County is the increase in natural gas production over past years, thanks to horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Natural gas has been a critical part of the utility industry’s reduction in coal energy over the past several years as an inexpensive and lower emission alternative to coal.

Even with the current focus on renewables, oil and gas trade association West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association executive director Eric Carlson isn’t concerned about the push toward more renewables will harm the industry anytime soon.

“Renewables will require these major technologies that aren’t proven yet,” Carlson said. “We know today that we have the ability for reliability from natural gas. From the consumer perspective, that is the top priority.”

Erica Sparhawk, deputy director of CLEER, said the energy commitments and the Thursday roundtable are a chance for the region to be known as a renewable energy leader, as well as a natural gas producer.

Reliance on renewables will require a number of technologies that don’t yet exist, particularly in battery storage for solar. A lot of energy uses happen when the sun isn’t shining. People need lights, heat, and, at least in this region, to turn on snowmaking machines, at night, leading to peak periods that require the energy grid to spike power production.

The main factors driving the recent commitments are historically low costs for wind and solar, improvements in technology, and a change in how consumers think about energy, according to industry observers. There is also a risk that federal tax incentives for wind and solar, which helped make technology development possible, will not be renewed after they expire between 2020 and 2022.

In years past, a utility company would likely avoid telling consumers how to use power differently, but many people now seek to use energy in a way that isn’t harmful to the environment, Hannegan said.

Of course, people still want their showers hot and their beers cold, he said, but they are more focused on doing that “in a way that uses as many renewables or energy resources as possible and minimizes their overall bill.”

Holy Cross has installed smart meters to collect better data, and is looking at ways to incentivize customers to consume energy more efficiently.

“Where we’re going in the future is creating incentives for our customers where they can get lower-priced energy in exchange for changing their behaviors to take advantage of use when supply is most available from wind and solar,” said Steve Beuning, vice president for power supply and programs at Holy Cross.

Sparhawk doesn’t want people to assume that with these commitments they don’t need to worry about energy use. There are a number of areas that energy companies are going to need participation from governments and consumers to achieve their goals, she said.

That could include incentivizing consumers to put solar panels on roofs for discounted energy.

“They’ll need more of us, as a collective, to be helpful installing solar, or identifying that we want to be buying more renewable energy,” Sparhawk said.

The panel discussion Thursday may provide more detail on how Holy Cross and Xcel will achieve their goals. In 2017, 44 percent of Xcel’s electricity offering for Colorado came from coal and 28 percent came from natural gas. Wind, solar and other renewables combined made up just 28 percent of the total energy mix.

Xcel hasn’t released detailed information about how its future energy mix will increase renewable energy, but generally the goal is to avoid coal.

In a previous plan for Colorado this fall, which estimated a 60 percent renewable mix by 2026, Xcel looked to reduce coal to 24 percent of its total energy portfolio, reduce natural gas to 23 percent, and increase renewables to 53 percent.

Holy Cross’s current portfolio is at 39 percent renewable, 53 percent coal, 6 percent natural gas and 2 percent from network suppliers. To help with the transition, Holy Cross will sell its share in Xcel’s Comanche 3 Power Station, a coal plant, while transitioning to renewables.

“We’re thrilled the two companies are setting these goals and targets, and leading the way for other utilities to do the same thing,” Sparhawk said.

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