“Transformative,” “substantial,” “turducken”? Colorado lawmakers approve a bevy of energy bills in 2019 session

How do you sum up a legislative session that saw the passage of more than a dozen bills on renewable energy, energy efficiency, climate change and electric vehicles?

Transformative. A true example of sausage-making. A leap forward to the 21st century. A burden on the most vulnerable consumers. And, easily the most original description, a turducken.

Actually, that last one refers to legislation that reauthorizes the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. A turducken is a chicken stuffed into a duck, stuffed inside a turkey. Thus, the name for the PUC bill, which ended up incorporating two other bills — one that sets carbon-reduction targets and another that issues low-cost bonds to retire power plants for cleaner sources.

Whatever the description, the measures approved by the Democratic-controlled legislature and waiting to be signed by Gov. Jared Polis are ambitious attempts to get Colorado to a future where 100 percent of the electricity comes from renewable sources and carbon emissions are significantly reduced.

“If I had to sum it up in a word, I think I’d say ‘transformative.’ It’s a real shift in our policy, and I think it really shows the direction that Colorado is headed,” said Erin Overturf, chief energy counsel for the conservation group Western Resource Advocates. “I think it shows that we’re starting to take climate change seriously and recognize the task that’s truly ahead of us if we’re going to do our part to help solve this problem.”

The bills include efforts to make houses and appliances — from refrigerators, to light bulbs to air conditioners and furnaces — more energy-efficient.

“Energy efficiency has helped us to eliminate the growth in electricity use in the state even though our population is growing and our economy is growing,” said Howard Geller, executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. “Leveling off our overall energy use makes it much easier to transition away from fossil fuels.”

And it’s not just a matter of phasing out coal and natural gas power plants with wind farms and solar arrays. The number of vehicles and the miles driven are on the rise, Geller said. “There’s more work to do there.”

Lawmakers extended state tax credits for buying electric vehicles and allowed regulated electric utilities to own and operate vehicle charging stations to try to encourage people to buy and drive zero-emission vehicles.

One of the things that sets Colorado apart from other states working to boost the use of renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is its efforts to look out for affected workers and communities, said Anna McDevitt, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

The bill reauthorizing the PUC has a provision requiring utilities to include a workforce transition plan when they propose shutting down a power plant. Another section on low-cost bonds to retire power plants for cleaner, cheaper alternatives also provides that a portion of the proceeds helps workers and communities affected by the closures.

“It’s great that Colorado leaders stepped up to protect our communities from pollution and expensive fossil-fuel infrastructure, not to mention starting to look out for workers, too,” McDevitt said.

More green for the green?

However, some Coloradans don’t think the legislature is looking out for consumers, especially those on low incomes. The Colorado office of the AARP says electric bills could increase because the PUC bill will allow Xcel Energy-Colorado to pass on costs of phasing out coal and natural gas plants and building charging stations.

Xcel Energy is Colorado’s largest electric utility, serving about 1.5 million customers.

“We’re not anti-environmental. Our issue is truly the cost to the consumer,” said Kelli Fritts, AARP’s advocacy director. “We’re concerned about the burden being placed on the consumer.”

Referring to the PUC bill and its carbon-reduction targets, Xcel Energy said in a statement Friday that the legislation was “heavily negotiated with a broad set of stakeholders” and protects safety reliability and customer costs.

But AARP believes the utility’s shareholders should assume at least some of the cost of shuttering coal or gas plants early, said Bill Levis, the organization’s lead utility volunteer.

“That’s what happened with (telecommunications) back in the ’80s and ’90s when there was a move to make everything fiber- and internet-related,” Levis said. “The Bell system had to retire its old network early, and that was taken against shareholders.”

Fritts said AARP is considering suing to challenge the PUC bill on grounds that it violates the constitutional prohibition against a bill addressing more than one subject.

The Coalition of Ratepayers is considering a similar lawsuit, said Amy Oliver Cooke, executive vice president of the Independence Institute, a Denver-based libertarian think tank.

“I think it’s absolutely financially irresponsible what this state legislature did to Colorado residents,” Cooke said. “The cost of living is going to go up.”

K.K. DuVivier, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, said although the PUC bill makes several good steps forward, she worries that utility customers will bear the burden of increasing the use of renewable energy. DuVivier, who specializes in renewable energy law, is concerned the bill dilutes some of the necessary regulatory checks on Xcel Energy, an investor-owned utility.

Xcel Energy spokesman Mark Stutz said, “The notion that it is a fundamental redesign of the utility regulatory process is unfounded. It simply moves emission reduction policy forward in a responsible manner.”

DuVivier said she is pleased with some of the changes made in the final versions of the various bills Still, she referred to an old saying to evaluate the legislation: “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”

Important building blocks

“For the state of Colorado, this is probably the most substantial session that we’ve ever had” on energy, said Mike Kruger, president and CEO of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association.

One bill expands the size of community solar gardens, which are centralized arrays of solar panels that users “subscribe” to. They are intended for people who want to use solar power but whose roofs aren’t suitable, who live in an apartment or can’t afford to install a system.

Other legislation directs the PUC to study regional transmission organizations that would make it easier for utilities or municipalities to buy wholesale power. Another section requires regulators to take on planning to help facilitate rooftop solar and other distributed-energy installations.

The PUC also will have to look into so-called “performance-based ratemaking.” That would allow utilities to earn a certain rate of return on things such as increasing energy efficiency or installing a certain amount of rooftop solar rather than just on construction of plants or other infrastructure.

Kruger and other renewable-energy advocates say it is important to take steps to increase the use of renewable energy because the costs of wind, solar and batteries to store the electricity generated by solar panels and wind turbines is expected to keep dropping.

“The bills that passed this time set us up for some excellent building blocks,” Kruger said. “I think this really does give us a chance to remake the electric power sector in Colorado for the 21st  century.”

A look at the bills
According to a snapshot by the Colorado Energy Office, the 2019 Colorado General Assembly passed bills covering energy efficiency, electric vehicles, climate/utility policy.

Some of the highlights:

• Senate Bill 19-236: Reauthorizes the PUC; directs the PUC to establish a social cost of carbon dioxide emissions; directs Xcel Energy to submit a plan to achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030; requires Tri-State Generation and Transmission to submit its resource planning to the PUC for approval.

• House Bill 19-1261: Sets statewide goals to reduce 2025 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent; 2030 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent; and 2050 emissions by at lest 90 percent of the levels that existed in 2005.

• House Bill 19-1314: Creates the Just Transition Office in the Division of Employment and Training in the Department of Labor to provide benefits and access to job training for coal workers and grants to eligible entities in communities that want to diversify their economies.

• House Bill 19-1231: Updates and adopts energy- and water- efficiency standards for new equipment sold in Colorado and requires that certain appliances, plumbing fixtures and other products sold for residential or commercial use meet energy efficiency and water efficiency standards that will be phased in over three years.

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