Holy Cross Energy, the electrical utility that serves parts of Aspen and the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley, announced goals in September 2018 that at once looked cautious and ambitious. Directors said they aimed to achieve 70% carbon-free electricity by 2030. They were — and still are — at about 39% clean energy.
But Holy Cross in late August announced affirmatively that its 2030 goal would be met for sure by 2021 and possibly even by 2020. It will take this giant leap with completion of a new wind farm about 120 miles southeast of Denver.
Customers of Aspen Electric, the city utility, can be excused for yawning. After all, the city was able to hit 100% renewable energy in 2015, one of the first few utilities in the nation able to make that claim. It did so by bulking up on wind power from the Great Plains, specifically the panhandle of Nebraska, but also hydroelectric power from the big dams of the West, a bit of local and regional hydroelectric, plus a tiny amount of landfill gas. The gas is burned to generate electricity.
Ah, but it’s Aspen, some have scoffed. People there can afford to pay high rates for renewables, they say dismissively. What that misses are the semi-annual surveys by the Colorado Association of Municipal Utilities that finds Aspen Electric’s rates consistently among the lowest in the state.
The city utility meets about one-third of the demand within the city’s emissions inventory boundary, according to the city’s climate action plan.
If Aspen Electric can hit 100%, why is it such a big deal that Holy Cross Energy now is on the verge of getting to 70%?
Holy Cross Energy is larger and, until last December, it was tethered to a coal plant, Comanche 3 in Pueblo. It’s one of the nation’s newest coal plants, approved in 2004 when many — including the panel presided over by then-Vice President Dick Cheney — thought electrical demand would continue to soar and renewables would remain costly. The Front Range coal plant went on line in 2010.
Coal was the easier answer, although natural gas had been coming on in a significant way. That Front Range coal plant went online in 2010. Holy Cross owned 8% of its 750-megawatt production.
What the former vice president’s panel did not foresee in its call for many more coal plants early in the administration of George W. Bush was how rapidly the prices of renewables would tumble and the success utilities would find in integrating them without sacrificing either prices or reliability.
A case study for this pivot is Xcel Energy. It supplies more than 60% of Colorado’s electricity and is the full owner of two of the coal plants at Pueblo and primary owner of the third, Comanche 3. In 2004, the company spent millions to persuade Colorado voters they should not impose a mandatory 10% renewable portfolio standard. Too risky, too problematic, the company said. Given the mandate, the company set out to comply and found it easier than expected.
Then, in 2017, Xcel officials announced that they wanted to close the two older coal plans. That power would be replaced by renewables. This would push the utility’s power generation to about 55% in Colorado.
That was interesting. The shocker came just after Christmas 2017, when the bids were unveiled. Prices for wind had plunged to well below coal, and solar prices had dived, too. The new package will even include still-pricey battery storage, at this time set to be the largest storage outlay in the country. It was a new world in energy, and in September 2018 Colorado regulators approved Xcel’s plan. By 2025 it will be at 53% renewables.
Last December, Xcel delivered another bombshell. Using existing technology, it said, it planned to be at 80% reduced greenhouse gas emissions in its power supply by 2030 as compared with 2004 levels. Furthermore, it planned to get to 100% emissions free by 2050. It just didn’t know how. It believes continued technological evolution will deliver the answers.
Given this backdrop, what to make of the 70% goal adopted by directors of Holy Cross Energy last year?
Bryan Hannegan, the chief executive of Holy Cross, acknowledges that it was cautious. “We wanted to make sure that we had time to complete our goals and that we met the cost test. Remember that our Seventy70Thirty goal was premised on not increasing the cost of power supply. But we also had more access to new resources in the last year than we had expected.”
That “Seventy70Thirty” goal called for 70% clean and renewable energy with a 70% reduction in carbon levels as compared with 2014 levels by 2030.
A new wind farm being developed by Nereo GC Lincoln will deliver 100 megawatts of power to the 53,000 members of Holy Cross, a co-operative, in Snowmass Village, Vail, and other communities along Interstate 70 in Western Colorado. The wind farm will be located at the east end of Xcel Energy’s $1 billion, 300-turbine Rush Creek wind farm, which began operation last year. Holy Cross has rights to use Xcel transmission capacity but also owns some of that capacity.
Prices of the wind power were not disclosed, but Holy Cross described them as comparable to the bids received by Xcel Energy in its 2017 solicitation. Those jaw-dropping prices, $11 to $18 per megawatt-hour for wind generation, drew national attention.
Holy Cross has ambitions to go higher with its renewable energy, including more local sources. Wind is blessedly absent in the Aspen and Vail areas, except on mountaintops. The valleys are sunny, though. Solar farms near El Jebel and at the airport at Rifle, 70 miles west of Aspen, take advantage of the abundant splash of light.
Now, Holy Cross aims for more: a 5-megawatt solar farm near the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. It has drawn opposition from residents of Woody Creek and Brush Creek Village who object to the visual clutter of the 18,000 panels. Speaking for Aspen Skiing Co., Auden Schendler in July called for approval based on broader considerations. “We at the Aspen Skiing Co. believe our community can no longer say: ‘We support clean energy, just not here.’ Climate change is already creating impacts far beyond the visual and, if left unaddressed, will only grow worse.”
Holy Cross has another reason for wanting to see local generation of electricity. Imported power has its own problems. During the Lake Christine Fire of 2018, three of the four transmission lines that deliver power to Snowmass and Aspen went down just before the Fourth of July weekend, and one of the wooden poles for the fourth line was starting to burn when firefighters arrived. If a solar farm is not the full answer, it’s at least part of the solution.
With only one dissension, the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of the solar farm in early August. Pitkin County commissioners are scheduled to take up the proposal on Sept. 25.
Is it too soon to start talking about 80% for Holy Cross? No, and internally those discussions have started. But the pathway is not yet clear, said Jenna Weatherred, the utility’s spokeswoman: “I think you will see us come up with a plan to get to 80% fairly soon. We know we will get there. We just don’t know exactly how we will get there.”
But can Holy Cross get to 100% emission-free energy?
Hannegan likened his utility’s quest to that of climbing a tall mountain, an apt comparison given the utility’s namesake, Mount of the Holy Cross, a 14,009-foot summit near Vail. It feels pretty good to get this far, he said.
“But we know we have the rest of the summit to tackle,” Hannegan said in an interview moments after a session sponsored by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission titled “Getting to 100% Renewable Energy.” “The hard part is the last face, the last 20%. If you’re a mountaineer, that’s the challenge that you live for.”
One takeaway from the PUC session, articulated by Mark Dyson of the Rocky Mountain Institute, was to not get hung up on how to achieve the last 2% to 3% of renewable energy. Better, said Dyson, to decarbonize other sectors of the economy, especially transportation and buildings.
At a recent retreat, directors of the co-operative sized up its next steps. Staff members have what Hannegan described as “tough homework assignments. They’re also interesting homework assignments in the sense that they tackle some new issues that only become pressing once you have reached 70% or 80% clean energy.”
Holy Cross needs greater flexibility, “in all shapes and sizes,” including increased storage, he said. “I think batteries will play a big role.” Colorado’s largest energy storage project, he added, is a pumped-hydro storage project near Georgetown, 45 minutes west of Denver. It can produce up to 324 megawatts of generation.
Many utility managers have also mentioned the need for broadening energy markets, including creation of a regional transmission organization, something that the West lacks despite its abundance of renewable generation.
New uses of electricity in both transportation and buildings should provide flexibility to achieve emissions-free energy. Market and prices will determine just how much flexibility for Holy Cross.
Asked about what state and federal incentives will be needed to displace fuels that produce emission, Hannegan instead directed attention to the grassroots.
“I think it is up to each local jurisdiction,” he said. “If it has a strong climate action plan, it will start to move away from those things that require fossil fuels. It will be up to Holy Cross to be ready and available to help those jurisdictions tamp down their emissions footprint by increasing use of emissions-free electricity.”
All three counties — Pitkin, Eagle, and Garfield — and each of the individual municipalities from Aspen to Glenwood Springs have a climate action plan.
Delivering the electricity to Holy Cross will be Guzman Energy, a relatively new wholesale supplier that got its start in 2016 by assuming deliveries to Kit Carson Electric in Taos, New Mexico. It reached an agreement for delivery swaps with Holy Cross in December that made the 70% goal attainable.
The bottom line here is that the electrical supplies for Aspen and the Roaring Fork are rapidly being cleansed of greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation has started to come on rapidly. The much tougher nut to crack will be buildings. That, however, is another and even longer story.
Allen Best did climb Mount of the Holy Cross four times but failed in four attempts of Capitol Peak. He writes about energy, water and other topics from a base in metropolitan Denver. He can be found at mountaintownnews.net. This is adapted from a story originally published by Energy News Network.