Guest Opinion: Let’s not cling to our old energy ways
May 30, 2018
The Stone Age didn't end, the late Randy Udall of Carbondale liked to say, because we ran out of rocks. And it was not President Obama who precipitated coal's decline, despite being a climate change believer, and despite Missouri lawyer Terry Jarrett's claims in his May 22 Post Independent guest column.
The energy future isn't arriving because we are running out of coal — or because the last administration acknowledged the need for climate action.
Converging forces are driving the transformation. Climate change is certainly one of those, which has been identified as a geopolitical threat, a looming public health crisis, and an economic calamity. But cheap gas is what drove the stake in coal, and now renewables are poised to do the same to fracked gas.
It wasn't a sudden arrival of pie-in-the-sky tree-huggers that make renewables more attractive for power generation. For several years, analysts have been able to show cost parity between the dirty power of the past and cleaner power options. Now the market recognizes it too, and the speed by which old, polluting plants are being replaced is accelerating.
Consider a recent report by Basalt-based Rocky Mountain Institute, which finds that: "… because of recent innovation and rapid cost declines in renewable energy and DER technologies, clean energy portfolios can often be procured at significant net cost savings, with lower risk and zero carbon and air emissions, compared to building a new gas plant."
Some will discount the RMI study, produced by clean energy advocates. But the study just presents information that many now see as economic fact. Producing clean power to use closer to home is becoming more affordable than building massive, centralized, dirty plants to generate power for consumers hundreds of miles away.
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Take a recent article in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, "Co-ops consider flying the coop," about a revolt in the ranks of Tri State member-owned electric cooperatives.
"Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, based in Taos, decided to proceed and part ways with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. It determined that the price of renewable energy is so much less these days than what Tri-State charges that it and its member-customers still would save money in the long run by working with another energy provider to pursue a renewable-based approach."
The Sentinel article followed an earlier article by Mountain Town News, that considers this same trend.
"… La Plata Electric Association voted in January to study alternatives during the next 10 to 15 years. The decision was made by the Durango, Colorado-based co-op after a petition was signed by 1,000 people and 100 businesses calling for 100 percent renewables with deeper penetration from local sources."
Colorado's clean energy future is at the threshold, and our elected officials need to lead or get out of the way. As one La Plata Electric Association board member noted (from the Mountain Town News article):
"We are buying our electricity from one of the dirtiest sources in the United States and paying well above market prices … Why wouldn't we want to explore our options?"
But the economics, and stakes, are not only about utility bills. Wildfire season looms and experts fret it will be a big one. As we bake through a historic drought here, hurricane season appears to be off to an early start in the Gulf. Billions of dollars are on the line — think wineries in California and high-rise condos on Miami Beach, and cities and towns that face costly infrastructure repairs. This all points to a looming price on the carbon pollution that drives climate change — by policy or by legal-consequence, or by both.
But even without a carbon fee, economics in many cases now favor clean power. The real question is how long the energy titans of the last century can cling to their old ways — and how long voters will allow elected officials to enable them.
Pete Kolbenschlag is an environmental activist, climate leader and public lands and energy consultant. He lives in Paonia, where he works on clean energy, conservation and climate projects.
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