Fifteen years after Colorado voters instituted a mandate for utilities’ renewable energy generation, the companies appear close to meeting their targets.
Colorado’s renewable portfolio standard, as originally passed, required the largest utilities to generate 3% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2007, and 10% by 2015. The General Assembly subsequently amended the targets, and the benchmark for 2020 is to have 30% renewable energy.
Xcel Energy as of 2018 reported a 28% percent mix of renewable sources. With 1.5 million customers, Xcel is the state’s largest utility. By 2026, Xcel plans to boost that percentage to 53% through shutting down most of its Comanche coal plant near Pueblo.
That is a substantial turnaround from 2004, when Renewable Energy World reported that the renewable mandate faced “consistent and strong resistance from electric utility companies, particularly Xcel Energy,” noting that Xcel mounted a “full-scale attack campaign.”
The state’s other investor-owned utility, Black Hills Energy, reported last year only 18% of its electricity was carbon-free. However, the company says that a $71 million wind farm opening this year in Huerfano and Las Animas counties will get them to exactly 30%.
In addition to the two investor-owned utilities, Colorado has 29 municipal utilities and 22 electric cooperatives.
The Colorado Energy Office provided data about the 10% threshold that municipal utilities with over 40,000 customers and co-ops with under 100,000 customers must reach by next year.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc., which powers 18 of Colorado’s co-ops, reported that 30% of their portfolio was renewable in 2017.
“That includes its entire hydro portfolio, much of which likely does not meet the state RPS requirements,” said Heatheryn Higgins, spokesperson for the energy department. However, 13% of Tri-State’s nameplate capacity — or the maximum generating capacity — is renewable, surpassing the standard.
The state’s largest municipal utilities in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, stand at 11% and 14%, respectively. Like Tri-State, their percentages are much higher including their hydroelectric generation. Under state statute, hydropower is part of the calculation only if it is 10 megawatts or under, or if it is under 30 megawatts and existed prior to 2005.
In addition, the municipal utilities in Aspen and Glenwood Springs solely operate on renewable electricity.
Sen. Kevin Priola, who as a state representative voted against a 2010 bill to raise the renewable benchmarks, said that the near-achievement of those goals provides a "lesson learned."
"Given almost a decade has passed and technology has advanced at a rapid pace, I'm glad the standards are where the are today," said Priola, R-Henderson. "That 2010 vote is one I wish I could have back."
Despite the progress, there is a desire to push the envelope further.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis unveiled a plan to derive 100% of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2040. The proposal touches on electric vehicles, mandates to utilities and calculating the social cost of carbon in state planning.
A far-reaching bill, HB19-1313, passed the state House this year, and would have required an 80% carbon reduction from Xcel compared to its 2005 levels. The Public Utilities Commission would have had more oversight in utilities’ clean power planning. The legislation failed in the Senate, but a similar carbon-reduction goal was enacted in a related bill.
“I believe without the renewable energy standard, we would not be where we are today,” said Rep. Alex Valdez, D-Denver, who has worked in the solar industry for nearly a decade. “I believe we took a huge step this year by passing HB-1313 which will guide the PUC on the integration of renewables in the years to come.”
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that a carbon-reduction goal for utilities was included in separate legislation.