Dems vote to expand rural renewable-energy mandate

Keywords: Energy saving,

DENVER - Top Democrats in the Legislature moved Monday to expand renewable-energy mandates in rural Colorado, which has more lenient requirements than urban areas.

Senate Bill 252's biggest effect falls on Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which supplies electricity to rural cooperatives such as Empire Electric Association, electric providers in Southwest Colorado.

Currently, rural co-ops will have to supply 10 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, while big utilities such as Xcel Energy in Denver have a 30 percent standard. SB 252 raises the standard for Tri-State to 25 percent by 2020.

Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, is the sponsor. Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, will carry the bill in the House if it passes the Senate as expected.

Gov. John Hickenlooper sent an official from his energy office to express the administration's support at a hearing Monday.

"This bill was drafted to accomplish what we feel we need to accomplish for Colorado for its clean air and jobs. We understand there's opposition," Morse said.

Xcel fought against renewable energy until voters and the Legislature forced it on the company, and now Xcel is a national model for clean energy, he said.

"The market's not going to do it itself," Morse said.

However, the Colorado Rural Electric Association's executive director said legislators are confused about the renewable-electricity business.

"We understand how these systems work. We really don't need a lot of help from you all to figure this out," said CREA's Kent Singer.

Tri-State draws most of its power from coal, and it has fought against renewable-energy mandates.

Officials from the company said the bill would cost them at least $2 billion, bringing a 20 percent increase in electricity bills.

Supporters of the bill doubted those numbers.

"There is no way this bill could cause Tri-State or its members to incur billions of dollars in cost. I don't know where they get that number," said Bruce Driver, a lawyer for Western Resource Advocates.

The bill limits rate increases on consumers' bills to cover the cost of more renewable energy to 2 percent - the same cap that exists for big utilities like Xcel.

Ron Binz, a former chairman of the Public Utilities Commission, said Coloradans have a mistaken impression that renewable power costs more because the state started using more wind power at the same time a large, expensive coal plant came online in Pueblo.

"Wind is actually saving money every time a wind project comes on," Binz said.

SB 252 also allows methane captured from coal mines or garbage dumps to be used to meet the renewable-power mandate. Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, said Democrats killed a Republican bill on coal-mine methane earlier this year. He implied that Democrats voted it down in order to use the idea to build a coalition behind their renewable-energy mandate.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted 3-2 to advance the bill in its first hearing Monday. The bill's next stop is the full Senate.