Capitol Letters: A Change of Climate

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and may not necessarily be shared by the Longmont Observer.

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Colorado State Capitol (Photo by Karen Corliss/ Longmont Observer)
Marcia Martin (Photo by Rick Brennan/ Longmont Observer)

By Marcia Martin

Longmont is listed among Michael Bloomberg’s We Are Still In directory of cities still committed to meeting or exceeding the goals of the Paris Climate Accords, despite the so far unrealized threat that the U.S. will withdraw from the Accords. [According to the agreement, we actually can’t withdraw until the year 2020, officially.]

The federal government is busily dismantling regulations from the Obama era and that were intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the U.S. But cities, states, businesses, and other enterprises are just as busily ignoring the feds and doing the right thing, anyway. Even though Colorado is not officially a state-level Bloomberg signatory, this year our State Legislature is working hard to clean up Colorado’s greenhouse emissions act while the political “Climate” in the legislature is amenable to the work.

The work of climate regulation is technical and difficult. In January, we looked at two relatively simple recent bills, last year’s SB18-009 to Allow Electric Utility Customers Install Energy Storage Equipment, and this year’s HB19-1003, the Community Solar Garden Modernization Act. Both of these bills simply establish the right of individual utility customers to adapt to the era of renewable energy, doing their bit to slow or stop climate change. That’s the easy part.

Consider the much more complex problem of managing the capital investment in old fashioned “thermal” generators: plants that burn coal or natural gas to create steam that turns a turbine. They are big machines with many moving parts, costly to build and maintain. They were meant to last 40 years or more, and the financing used to build them was set up with that expectation. Now the People and the Planet are united in urging the generation authorities to close them down early. That is the hard part, for many, many reasons.

Consider the Platte River Power Authority’s Rawhide Coal Power Plant. It began commercial operations in 1983 and, in the plan of record at the time, was expected to operate until about 2046. Now, PRPAs owner cities, all with resolutions calling for 100% renewable energy by 2030, expect Rawhide to shut down with at least 16 years of useful life remaining. It’s an accountant’s nightmare.

Rawhide supplies something like half of Longmont’s electricity. It’s also Northern Colorado’s biggest polluter. Fifty percent of Longmont’s carbon footprint comes from burning coal. So Rawhide has got to go. Fortunately, our intrepid and creative lawmakers are working to help it die a graceful death without sending Colorado’s economy into convulsions.

Colorado Representative Chris Hansen, a young legislator from Denver’s House District 6 with brilliant academic credentials and a background in renewable energy, has introduced House Bill 19-1037, the Colorado Energy Impact Assistance Act. It’s a lonely bill with no co-sponsors. But it shows deep thought and a realistic understanding of what must be done if Colorado (and the nation) is to survive the economic disruptions in our future. As the consequences of 200+ years of burning coal come home to roost in the form of accelerating climate change, we must effect a new industrial revolution in which fossil fuels play only the tiniest of roles. Representative Hansen has proposed a way to get us through it.

HB19-1037 creates a financial toolkit to help utilities who must retire “thermal” energy assets prematurely absorb the cost of doing it. For us climate crusaders, it’s a mundane detail. For men like Jason Frisbie of PRPA, who carry the weight of their responsibility to keep our lights on and our electricity rates low, it probably feels like everything. Their ledgers and their credit and their workers are a much more immediate problem to them than, well, impending doom that’s a decade or more away.

Hansen’s bill is over 40 pages of dense financial language. I won’t try to paraphrase: here’s the bill’s own executive summary:

The Act… authorizes any electric utility (utility) to apply to the public utilities commission (PUC) for a financing order that will authorize the utility to issue low-cost Colorado energy impact assistance bonds (bonds) to lower the cost to electric utility customers (ratepayers) when the retirement of a power plant occurs. A portion of bond proceeds will provide transition assistance for Colorado workers and communities directly affected by the retirement of the facilities (transition assistance). To repay the bonds at the lowest cost to ratepayers, the PUC is authorized to review and approve a financing order and authorize a special energy impact assistance charge that is separate and apart from the utility’s base rates on all ratepayer bills. The establishment and ongoing adjustment of the separate charge will allow bonds to achieve the highest possible credit rating, at least AA/Aa2, from the national independent credit rating agencies and will therefore allow bonds to be issued at the lowest possible interest rate and lowest subsequent cost to ratepayers.

HB19-1037 received its first hearing in the House Committee on Energy and the Environment on Monday February 11. It passed committee by a vote of 7-4 and is referred to the committee of the whole for consideration by the House.

The moral of this story is that doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but somebody has to look after the details. We don’t get to just be righteous on our convictions with regard to big issues of the day. We have to recognize that there are many moving parts and all of them need to be looked after. We don’t get to declare coal-burners and polluters “the bad guys” and feel good about them getting stuck with all the bills. That’s not how this is going to work.

Remember that the Rawhide Coal Plant was commissioned in 1983. The elites of the scientific community were beginning to gain consensus on global warming, but the first international calls for governments to reduce greenhouse emissions were still two years in the future. PRPA wasn’t being evil by building Rawhide. It was doing it job for the people of Northern Colorado. Financial instruments that make difficult transitions like this work aren’t compromises engineered by appeasers. They are what we need to keep the lights on.

Rep. Hansen’s bill isn’t flashy or sensational or even easy, like his other bill modernizing Community Solar Gardens. But it’s important to start considering how we manage the cost of shutting down the fossil fuel industry.  No matter how you feel about fault, or justice, or your investment portfolio, no one segment of our economy can manage this alone. I urge everyone to let their legislators know that we know it’s important. That they should make it law.

One more thing: Rep. Hansen, what about introducing a resolution committing Colorado to follow the Paris Accords, regardless of what the Fed does? Mayor Bloomberg is waiting to hear that We Are Still In.

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