Dumb Energy Advances in Colorado

Xcel Energy is the dominant electric utility in Colorado. In cooperation with various organizations promoting green energy, Xcel released what it calls the Colorado Energy Plan. The plan proposes building nearly two billion dollars of wind and solar energy installations. It also proposes closing two coal-generating plants and building some new natural gas-generating capacity.

Xcel, without directly saying so, gives the public the impression that the closed coal plants are being replaced with wind and solar. That can’t happen for the simple reason that coal works when the wind isn’t blowing and when the sun isn’t shining. Wind and solar are always part-time supplements to the electric grid. They don’t replace reliable coal or natural gas plants. All that wind and solar do is to reduce the amount of fuel consumed in the coal or natural gas plants, when those plants are throttled back to accommodate wind or solar electricity.

What is really happening is that Xcel is replacing older, but perfectly good, coal plants with natural gas plants. The coal plants being replaced are equipped with modern pollution controls and have low operating costs. Dumping the coal plants is necessary to accommodate the proposed wind and solar. Wind and solar have to have backup plants that can inversely follow the ups and downs of erratic wind and solar generation. Natural gas turbines are much better at doing that than is coal-based generation. Dumping the coal plants that emit more CO2 than natural-gas plants also pleases radical environmentalists that worry about global warming.

The company proposes building 1000 megawatts of wind and 700 megawatts of solar. The 1700 megawatts of green energy would only supply an average of about 500 megawatts of power. Solar doesn’t work at night or when its cloudy and wind only works according to the strength of the wind. Also proposed is 700 megawatts of new natural gas generation that can replace the closed coal plants totaling 660 megawatts. The company claims that closing working coal plants and building new wind and solar plants will save money. The coal-fired, Comanche Station, in Pueblo, Colorado, consists of three units. The first two units built in the 1970s would be closed. The third, a 750-megawatt unit, built in 2010, would remain open.

Even with the massive federal subsidies for wind and solar, it is doubtful that any money is saved by building wind and solar plants supplementing new natural gas capacity. The cost of coal fuel is surely competitive with natural gas, given that the coal comes from nearby Wyoming.

What is really going on is plant churning. If a utility can replace existing but fully depreciated plants with new plants, it can increase its rate base, the portfolio of assets on which its allowed profit is based. If it can build double the number of plants by building wind and solar along with natural gas backup, so much the better. If the utilities were not restrained by public utility commissions they would be happy to frequently close depreciated plants to allow them to make investment in new plants. Wind and solar, requiring huge new investments, are wonderful for utility bottom lines. Xcel is concerned with its own financial health, not the huge waste of public and private money that takes place when efficient coal plants are replaced with subsidized, green energy schemes.

The forces of green ideology are strong in Colorado. The Sierra Club is known for hating coal, but loving wind and solar. Green political influence has given Colorado a legal requirement to increase the amount of green energy in its electric grid. Xcel and the green environmental groups represent a confluence of special interests that have come together to screw the people of Colorado.

The public is subtly lied to by giving the impression that green energy is replacing coal and that this maneuver saves money. Not everyone is going along with the farce.  The Independence Institute, located in Denver, calls the plan snake oil and points out that the existing coal plants are extremely cost efficient.

The Denver Post published a guest commentary by James Taylor, a Senior Fellow of the Heartland Institute, highly critical of the Xcel plan. Taylor pointed out that the Intermountain electric co-op, that serves customers in Colorado, is also strongly critical of the Xcel plan.

Xcel commissioned a poll of Colorado voters that found that 95% agreed with this statement:

“The state of Colorado and utilities should work together to achieve the most significant increases in the use of clean renewable energy that can be accomplished while providing reliable and affordable energy.”

The public has been bombarded by years of propaganda claiming that renewable energy is a reasonable option. Not surprisingly, much of the public actually believes it.

A sinister alliance between green groups, the government, the renewable energy industry, and utilities have provided a new way to profit at the expense of the public. A technological edifice is created -- renewable energy. The edifice is then misrepresented by propaganda. The actual reality is impenetrable except by technically sophisticated specialists, so the propaganda Kool Aid is drunk by the public and the media. They simply don’t know any better. Those who do know better are impelled by political considerations to go along with the farce.

Public utility commissions are supposed to protect the public from this sort of looting. But in states where the green political forces are significant, the public utility commissions, themselves political bodies, tend to go along. Legislatures enact requirements requiring increased use of renewable energy. Most of the legislators are not much better informed than the public and are anxious not to offend the small but vocal part of the population that really believes in global warming and green energy. The media parrot the dubious claims of the green energy forces. This political juggernaut serves the interests of the utilities and the green believers at the expense of the public. Naturally, the manufacturers of wind turbines and solar panels are providing political assistance. The man in the street thinks, wrongly, that money is being spent to improve the climate, to lower the cost of electricity, and to remove pollution from the atmosphere.

Scientific support for global warming is extremely weak. The shenanigans of scientific groups promoting global warming are self-serving and dishonest. Even if one believes in global warming, wind and solar are a very expensive way to reduce CO2 emissions.

Wind and solar are about 70% subsidized in the case of utility scale installations, but residential rooftop solar, is actually subsidized in excess of 90%. These huge subsidies are rooted in the fact that intermittent green energy’s only real economic contribution is the reduction of fuel consumption in the backup plants required to maintain continuity of supply.

Why should a relatively small number of green fanatics be allowed to have huge influence over the configuration of the national electric grid? Because they scream loudly and put up picket lines around coal generating stations?

Norman Rogers writes often about energy issues. He is the author of the book: Dumb Energy: A Critique of Wind and Solar Energy. Articles he has written are available at ClimateViews.com.

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