Residents power up for fight over renewable energy

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For $3 added to each electric bill, electric customers already can purchase electricity produced by windmills rather than coal- or natural gas-powered plants.

But if consumer willingness to do so is any indication of Northwest Colorado's support for renewable energy, the Election Day outlook for Amendment 37 is dismal.

Of 24,000 Yampa Valley Electric Association customers in Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco and Wyoming's Carbon counties, only 326 purchase the optional wind-generated power offered by the utility company, YVEA president and general manager Larry Covillo said.

Amendment 37 would require Colorado utility companies that serve more than 40,000 meters to incrementally produce more electricity from renewable sources.

Initially, nine utilities in Colorado will be required to comply, including Yampa Valley Electric Association. Although YVEA only serves 24,000 meters, the utility contracts 95 percent of its power from Xcel. Xcel will be required to comply with the provisions of Amendment 37 and the costs will be passed down to YVEA and its customers, Covillo said.

If the proposed amendment passes, adjustments from coal, hydroelectric and natural gas generation to solar, wind, geothermal heat, hydrogen fuel cells and biomass would occur on the following schedule: 3 percent of electricity will be generated from renewable sources by 2010, 6 percent by 2014 and 10 percent by 2015.

The wording of Amendment 37 on the Nov. 2 ballot is actually the fourth incarnation of legislation that most recently passed in the state House of Representatives but failed by a very slim margin in the Senate this spring. It was the third time the renewable energy bill, sponsored by state House speaker Lola Spradley, R-Beulah, failed to pass.

After three strikes in the Legislature, those interested in renewable energy sources are taking the bill to the voters.

The list of supporters for Amendment 37 includes the American Lung Association, Audubon Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and ski areas such as Aspen Skiing Co. and Vail Resorts. Utility companies, on the other hand, have come out strongly against it.

For Xcel and YVEA, the main concern is cost.

"This is an unfunded mandate that comes at an unfair cost for service that we provide voluntarily now," Covillo said. "We support renewable energy, but we are against a mandate. Mandates encourage price gouging. When you have to have something, people charge whatever they can get."

Covillo estimates YVEA's cost of providing 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources to be between $7 million and $22 million by 2015.

"We will have to pass that cost on to the customer."

The wording of Amendment 37 promises a 50-cent cap on the amount residential customers' bills will increase.

"This artificial cap is only for residential," Covillo said. "It does not include commercial, industrial or city customers. I can guarantee their bills considerably will go up when costs are passed on."

Proponents of Amendment 37 counter by saying that though the ballot issue specifically mentions a residential cap, existing Colorado laws prevent residential and other classes of customers to be charged differently, so the cap would benefit business and other users not specifically named.

Supporters recognize that costs will be high initially as solar and wind power generators are put into place.

"It's an investment we have to make in new technology. Eventually, these systems pay for themselves," said Jeffrey Campbell, owner of Simply Radiant Heating and a volunteer on the Amendment 37 campaign.

The cost is worth it, said Steamboat resident Ric Turner: "It's a small price to pay to have clean, renewable energy."

According to the Colorado Blue Book, 16 other states have adopted renewable energy requirements. The amount and source of the renewable energy varies by state from 1.1 percent in Arizona (mostly solar) to 30 percent in Maine (mostly hydroelectric). Colorado receives 2 percent of its energy today from renewable sources.

"Colorado is supposed to be a frontier of open minds," Campbell said. "We should be learning from what happened in California. It's not going to happen on the federal level, so Colorado should set an example."

As Colorado grows, Western Colorado Congress community organizer Christi Ruppe sees Amendment 37's provisions as a way to meet the rising demand for energy. She imagines a state where windmills are placed on coal companies' reclaimed land.

"While we are extracting resources, let's extract the sun," she said. "Let's extract the wind." She imagines a state where farmers and ranchers use solar voltaic cells and windmills as another crop.

"It's change and (utility companies) are not ready for it," Ruppe said. "They can't sell us the sun. A decentralized system is scary for them, but ask them what they'll do when fuel costs get so high that it isn't cost-effective to run their drag lines (at the coal mine).

"Not only as a community, but as a society, we need to keep trying to evolve and grow."

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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