Downsides of mixing politics with electricity

There is an orchestrated campaign by climate activists to close down the Rawhide Energy Station 26 miles north of Fort Collins. In the press and at local government meetings they are pushing for the adoption of resolutions calling for 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030.

For background, Platte River Power Authority is the wholesale electricity provider for Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Estes Park. This arrangement has been in place since 1973. The primary source of electricity from PRPA is the Rawhide Energy Station.

Rawhide is a mixed-use site with a coal-fired unit, natural gas and solar.

Other sources of electricity for PRPA are coal units in Craig, Colo., federal hydropower, Medicine Bow Wind Project, Silver Sage Windpower Project, and Spring Canyon Wind Energy Center.

Taken altogether, the current fuel sources used by PRPA are 62 percent coal, 19 percent hydro, 11 percent wind, 5 percent other purchases, 2 percent solar, and 1 percent natural gas.

According to the city of Fort Collins, Rawhide’s “coal-fired unit is one of the most efficient in the western US.  And, it also ranks among the top 10 units with the lowest criteria pollutant emissions.  Due to Rawhide’s state-of-the-art air quality control systems, the plant’s emissions remain significantly less than state and federal air quality permits allow. In fact, Rawhide Unit One is nationally-recognized as one of the cleanest coal-fired power plants in the United States in terms of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.”

In 2017, PRPA commissioned a study to look at possible fuel mixes that could get it to zero net carbon. According to the study, such a path does exist.

But, when the report was published, the political agendas started. Activist groups seized upon the findings to say zero net carbon isn’t good enough. They want zero carbon by 2030, forget the idea of net. In essence, shut down Rawhide.

As seductive as 100 percent renewables may sound to some, there are huge problems.

First, they are unreliable. By their very nature, they are intermittent. Sometimes the sun shines, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the wind blows, sometimes it doesn’t. For high tech firms, manufacturers, and others power reliability is paramount.

Second, unsubsidized renewables are expensive. Renewable advocates say otherwise, but they cite taxpayer subsidized prices and usually don’t include transmission costs. The actual non-subsidized all-in cost of generating and transmitting a megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity from wind is $68 compared to around $25 for electricity generated by Rawhide’s coal unit.

This will naturally result in higher electricity rates. In fact, places that have tried to go 100 percent renewables see a dramatic increase in electric rates and a significant drop in reliability.

Third, increasing electricity rates fall disproportionately heavy on the low income population tipping more families into energy poverty.

Fourth, there’s the issue of economic impact and jobs. As soon as this issue was reported in the newspaper, we got calls from major employers. While supporting clean power generation, power reliability and cost matter a lot. One employer has suspended any future expansions until they see where this issue is going.

Finally, PRPA has made huge investments at Rawhide since 1984. As noted previously, Rawhide Unit 1 is one of the most efficient and cleanest units in the west. Mothballing it for political reasons would be a massive waste of ratepayer resources.

The push for 100 percent renewables by 2030 is revolution when evolution is already working. Look back 150 years ago when wood was the primary source for energy in America. Then 100 years ago it was coal, followed by small amounts of petroleum, natural gas, and hydro. Compare that to PRPA’s fuel mix cited above. Change is taking place.

Playing politics with a tremendous public asset like PRPA provides no measurable benefit to the earth’s climate while promising harm to residents and businesses in Northern Colorado.

David May is president and CEO of the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce.