Brennan Linsley/Associated Press
DENVER – Rural utilities will need to double their renewable-energy usage under a law signed Wednesday by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Hickenlooper’s signature on Senate Bill 252 put to an end, for the moment, a monthlong drama about whether he would reverse his earlier support for the bill and bow to pressure from Republicans and a media campaign by Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the prime target of the bill.
The governor admitted he had misgivings about the idea, but he dismissed the argument that it would cost rural consumers a lot of money.
“The average cost per consumer is about two bucks,” he said.
His staff analyzed the effect on irrigators, and the steepest price increase he could find for a farm was $40 a month.
The bill requires Tri-State to get 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. Currently, it has a 10 percent mandate.
Tri-State has argued the bill will cost its customers $3 billion. But sponsors pointed to an escape clause that says the mandates do not need to be met if they increase consumer utility bills by more than 2 percent.
Republicans were angry.
“Here is another example of the Democrats’ callous attitude toward the families in rural Colorado who are struggling to make ends meet. Utility bills will now increase on the very people who can least afford it,” said Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, in a news release.
Hickenlooper said agricultural communities are at the highest risk from reduced rain and snow because of climate change, and renewable energy is like an insurance policy to guard against the possible effects of burning fossil fuels.
Xcel Energy, which serves Denver and several other locations in the state, already has a 30 percent renewable-energy mandate by 2020 and is well on its way to meeting the requirement.
Throughout the heated debate in the Legislature, the differences in Xcel’s and Tri-State’s markets and corporate cultures were on display. Xcel, as an investor-owned utility, has decided to bet heavily on wind power. Tri-State, which is owned by the rural electric cooperatives it serves, gets most of its power from coal. The company fiercely resists mandates from the state, and it helped sponsor a statewide campaign of billboards, radio and television ads against SB 252.
The campaign appeared to have an effect on Hickenlooper. He met with officials from Tri-State and rural electric cooperatives, and he said he didn’t make up his mind to sign the bill until this week, even though his senior advisers – including Tom Hunt of the Colorado Energy Office – lobbied for the bill throughout its journey through the Legislature.
“Our style here is to take every concern seriously and to make sure what is passed doesn’t have unintended consequences,” Hickenlooper said.
Along with the bill, Hickenlooper included an executive order and a “signing statement” to give his interpretation of the 2 percent cost limit. Tri-State and the bill’s critics argued that the 2 percent cap was unclear.
The executive order creates a panel that includes Tri-State and rural co-op officials to oversee the bill’s implementation. If the panel decides Tri-State can’t meet the 2020 deadline, Hickenlooper’s order all but invites legislators to pass another bill in 2014 to tweak the requirement.
The original bill called for a 25 percent standard by 2020. Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, voted for the bill but also helped pass an amendment to lower the mandate to 20 percent.
By law, Friday is the last possible day that Hickenlooper has to sign bills. Republicans criticized Hickenlooper for taking so long to make up his mind. They pointed to his recent decision to delay – but not overturn – the death sentence for convicted mass murderer Nathan Dunlap to say the governor is showing a pattern of not being able to make tough decisions.
“For Pete’s sake, he was elected to lead, not wring his hands and drag his feet every single time a difficult decision comes along!” Colorado Republican Committee Chairman Ryan Call said in an emailed statement.