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Colorado looks to be ahead of Biden’s called-for pace on renewable energy

Cost of wind, solar likely to decrease as states divest from coal, natural gas

A view of Colorado Springs Utility’s solar arrays on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. The units currently power six percent of the city and will double when more arrays are added before 2025.
A view of Colorado Springs Utility’s solar arrays on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. The units currently power six percent of the city and will double when more arrays are added before 2025.
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Colorado is ahead of several states and the U.S. when it comes to renewable energy sources, with about two-thirds predicted to come from wind and solar by 2030. Energy experts say the speed at which the state can build out its renewable energy portfolio depends on the cost of building and maintaining those power sources.

President Joe Biden’s administration said 40% of the country’s electricity could come from solar power within the next 15 years, based on a recent report it issued. When Biden visits the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Arvada campus on Tuesday, he’s expected to speak about investing billions in combating climate change as part of his Build Back Better agenda.

While Colorado likely won’t hit the federal 40% solar mark — even by 2050 — it will almost certainly surpass a 40% renewables mark by the end of the decade, according to Noah Long, who is the western region director for the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Energy Program.

“By 2030, I think you’ll see 60% to 70% renewables,” Long said. “The question is how that is split between wind and solar.”

The state is well positioned in both categories, NREL Senior Energy Analyst Robert Margolis said, enough for Colorado to take on a larger or even “outsized” role in the nationwide push for renewables.

“It’s centrally located and it has the land,” Margolis said. “It could play a key role.”

Long’s predictions appear to be in line with those from the Colorado Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, which says as much as 68% of the state’s energy could come from renewables by 2030 — 17% coming from solar and 51% from wind. By 2050, about 85% of the state’s electricity could come from renewable sources (about 58% wind and 27% solar).

But the state’s goal isn’t to invest more into solar or wind so much as it is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the most affordable and equitable way, according to Keith Hay, director of utility policy for the Colorado Energy Office.

Electric utilities are required to cut 80% of their greenhouse-gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, Colorado Energy Director Will Toor said, and doing so by “largely by retiring old and expensive coal plants and replacing them with wind and solar and battery storage.”

Late last month, Colorado Springs Utilities switched from coal to natural gas at the Martin Drake Power Plant, though the utility will still burn coal at a plant southeast of town until 2029.

“We left the door open for what we’re going to fill our future need with when we retire (the Ray Nixon plant),” Colorado Springs Utilities’ Alex Baird said. “We want to leave it open so we can get the most economical generation for our city. Could be solar. Could be wind … anything but thermal (like coal or natural gas).”

About 6% of Colorado Springs Utilities’ electricity comes from solar, but that will double once a new solar array launches in 2023 — meaning the utility will generate more than a quarter of its power with renewables.

“I don’t think we’re stopping there,” Baird said.

If Biden’s administration pushes more states, utilities and companies toward renewables as indicated in the recent report, Hay and Toor said the cost to install wind and solar infrastructure is likely to go down. That could speed up existing plans in Colorado and perhaps even lower electricity costs for customers, Toor said.

A view of Colorado Springs Utility's ...
A view of Colorado Springs Utility’s solar arrays on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. The units currently power six percent of the city and will double when more arrays are added before 2025.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced in March it wants to further cut the costs utilities must pay to build new solar arrays to encourage more investment from about $0.046 per every kilowatt-hour of solar energy to $0.02 per kilowatt-hour by 2030.

Colorado still has a dozen coal plants online, and Long noted that Xcel Energy’s Comanche 3 Power Station near Pueblo is “Colorado’s single-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.” Xcel, the state’s largest utility, plans to fully retire the plant by 2040.