After historic zero-carbon pledge, Platte River Power Authority leaves door open to natural gas

Northern Colorado utility’s latest resource plan highlights challenges in Colorado’s clean-energy push

Fossil fuel extraction infrastructure is pictured northeast of Longmont, Colo., on June 24, 2020. (Andy Bosselman for Colorado Newsline)

Over the past few years, nearly every major electric utility and provider in Colorado has made headline-grabbing commitments to clean energy, pledging to be leaders in the global shift away from fossil fuels that scientists say is urgently necessary to combat climate change. But some environmental groups say that a recent move by northern Colorado’s largest utility highlights the need to make sure that companies follow through on their promises.

In a 7-1 vote on Thursday, the board of the Platte River Power Authority — which in 2018 made a historic pledge to achieve a carbon-free energy mix by 2030 — ratified a proposal that, for now, leaves the door open to natural-gas-powered electricity generation well beyond that date. Platte River provides electricity to roughly 350,000 people in Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Estes Park, and is governed by a board consisting of two elected officials from each community.

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The board’s approval of Platte River’s latest Integrated Resource Plan, which calls for an energy portfolio that includes nearly 500 megawatts of gas-powered generation until at least 2040, follows a two-year study and public-outreach process. The IRP isn’t a reversal of the 2018 clean-energy pledge, officials say, but a “baseline” plan based on current technological capabilities and market conditions that are likely to change in the coming years.

“We have not abandoned our goal,” said Steve Roalstad, Platte River’s communications manager. “We’re not turning our backs on it. We’re still working to achieve that 100% non-carbon energy mix.”

But the approval of the proposed portfolio, and the rejection of a “zero carbon” alternative that PRPA staff deemed too costly and unreliable, comes as a disappointment to some environmental activists, who worry that the plan “derails” the utility’s previous commitment and signals a lack of confidence in emerging clean-energy technology.

“Building a fracked gas plant in 2030 is a step in the wrong direction for air pollution control in Fort Collins, and global efforts toward net-zero carbon emissions,” Rekha Warrier, a member of the Sierra Club’s Fort Collins Energy Action Team, said in a statement. “A community like Fort Collins must lead the charge on climate justice, not thwart it.”

Despite steady progress towards renewable energy sources like wind and solar over the last two decades, the electric sector still accounts for about a quarter of Colorado’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Click To Tweet

Despite steady progress towards renewable energy sources like wind and solar over the last two decades, the electric sector still accounts for about a quarter of Colorado’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to state estimates. Without making deep cuts in emissions from electricity generation — as well as expanding capacity to boost electrification efforts in other sectors such as transportation and heating — the state almost certainly won’t be able to meet its new science-based greenhouse gas targets.

“We have to act now to avert the climate crisis,” said Abby Driscoll, chair of environmental group Sustainable Resilient Longmont. “All of the data that I’ve seen has shown that we can do this, and there’s absolutely no reason that we should have to pay more. And if we don’t, we’re going to be paying for it quite literally with our lives, and our children’s and grandchildren’s lives.”

‘Technology safeguard’

The Platte River board’s 2018 passage of a policy targeting 100% non-carbon energy by 2030 is among the most ambitious clean-energy pledges made by a Colorado utility to date. It closely followed Xcel Energy’s announcement that it would target an 80% reduction in emissions by 2030, and both were widely hailed as important steps on a path towards a 100% renewable electric grid by 2040, a key campaign promise of then-Gov.-elect Jared Polis.

But Platte River’s announcement came with some fine print. The 2030 target could be met, Platte River said in a press release at the time, only “provided key advancements are achieved that would enable goal attainment.” The policy formally adopted by its board spelled out a lengthy list of prerequisites, from “improved distributed generation resource performance” to the condition that “battery storage performance must mature and the costs must decline.”

In effect, the plan that the board approved Thursday is a declaration that, in Platte River’s estimation, these advances are still years away — especially when it comes to the battery storage capacity that’s necessary for a fully-renewable electric grid to deal with the variability of wind and solar power.

In order to continue offering its customers affordable and reliable electricity, the plan’s authors said, Platte River may need to continue to depend on natural gas. Under the “zero coal” portfolio adopted by the board, that capacity would come not only from existing natural-gas combustion turbines, or CTs, at Platte River’s Rawhide Energy Station, but also from newly constructed natural-gas units known as reciprocating internal combustion engine, or RICE, generators.

A chart from the Platte River Power Authority shows the variability of wind and solar power over a five-day period in January 2018. (PRPA)

“Based on today’s projections, RICE generation is the least cost option to provide reliability,” Platte River staff wrote in the plan. “If there is a technological breakthrough and a lower cost alternative is available to provide the same level of flexibility and reliability before the investment decision is made, Platte River will consider it.”

In a resolution passed alongside the resource plan Thursday, Platte River board members reaffirmed their commitment to the 2030 goal, calling the proposed natural gas assets a “technology safeguard.”

Because RICE generators can be built relatively quickly, Roalstad said, a final decision on whether to move forward with them won’t need to be made for several years, at least. The utility intends to complete two more IRP processes before 2030, and the next, in 2024, will provide additional clarity on whether the zero-carbon target is achievable without gas-powered generation.

“Platte River will continue to proactively pursue a 100% non-carbon energy mix by 2030, seeking innovative solutions that would enable Platte River to provide reliable and financially sustainable electric service to its owner communities without new fossil-fueled resources, if possible,” the board’s resolution read.

Battery storage in the spotlight

Gordon MacAlpine is one of thousands of Estes Park residents currently feeling the impacts of climate change, having evacuated from his home following the recent explosive growth of the East Troublesome Fire, the “unprecedented” heat- and drought-fueled blaze that has burned more than 190,000 acres across Grand and Larimer counties.

A home west of Colo. 125 still burns from open gas lines after the East Troublesome Fire made its way through a community in October 2020. (Thomas Cooper/Special to Colorado Newsline)

MacAlpine has lobbied Platte River for years to accelerate its transition to renewable energy. A retired university physicist, he questions the assumptions used in their latest resource plan to justify continued natural gas generation.

“For their computations in support of still more gas facilities, PRPA uses input data that are widely recognized as being wrong, and they have not given adequate consideration to carbon-free resources,” he said in an email. “Although I sympathize with PRPA’s desire to plan for more gas in case that becomes necessary, I believe they will continue to focus on the idea of new gas facilities and give even less consideration to developing opportunities for new clean energy technology.”

The Platte River plan puts a spotlight on the necessity of cost-effective, utility-scale battery storage to ensure the reliability of electric grids that depend heavily on wind and solar. As technology improves, the cost-per-megawatt-hour of battery storage systems is projected to drop precipitously over the next decade, according to a 2019 report from the Golden-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory — but for now, the obstacles for utilities remain significant.

And while Colorado ranks high when it comes to wind and solar power, it’s lagged behind other pioneering clean-energy states in building new battery capacity, according to a report released this week by Environment America’s Research and Policy Center. The report ranked Colorado 19th among states in megawatts of utility-scale battery storage added since 2010, its lowest ranking across four different clean-energy categories.

Jeffrey Logan, an associate director at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, explained in a press call following the report’s release that an inherent challenge of renewable electricity generation is that wind and solar power are not fully “dispatchable” — that is, able to be switched on and off to meet fluctuating energy needs.

“Natural gas can be one of the options to help us have dispatchable power when we need it, but it has emissions, and we must reduce emissions as quickly as we can,” Logan said. “So we must think about other options out there to make sure that we have reliable electricity.”

In addition to better, cheaper battery storage, Logan said, the zero-carbon electric grids of the future will need more efficient, flexible transmission and distribution, as well as dispatchable renewable energy sources like geothermal and hydropower. Networks of utilities across large regions need to cooperate in order to shift power from one system to another as necessary.

“Today, we have a lot of storage available at the four-hour level,” Logan said. “If we’re going to have high levels of renewables in the future, we’re going to need much longer periods of storage than that. We’re going to need weekly, or perhaps even seasonal kinds of storage.”

‘Keep the pressure on’

Polis’ administration, which has faced criticism for what his critics say is an unwillingness to enact sufficiently strict greenhouse-gas regulations, has made an 80% reduction in electric-sector emissions a centerpiece of its efforts to achieve the state’s 2030 climate goals. In a statement, Polis praised the resource plan adopted by Platte River on Thursday.

“This is the most ambitious level of pollution reduction that any large energy provider in the state has announced, and it sets a new bar for utilities,” Polis said. “(This) decision will save Platte River Power Authority customers money with low cost renewables while maintaining reliability, and this type of leadership from our electric utilities is a critical part of our statewide efforts to reduce pollution and fight the climate crisis.”

Even with natural gas generation beyond 2030, Platte River estimates, its plan would result in an emissions reduction of over 90%, as the utility’s remaining coal-powered assets are replaced by cleaner-burning gas facilities. Environmental activists, however, argue that the true costs of natural-gas extraction and distribution far exceed those estimates; the climate impacts of gas-fired plants when methane leaks are taken into account continues to be a subject of extensive academic inquiry and controversy.

Meanwhile, activists are bullish on the emerging clean-energy technologies required for a 100% renewable grid, especially given a renewed global focus on climate advocacy and policymaking in the last two years. Such is the rapid evolution of mainstream climate policy that Polis’ target of a 100% renewable grid by 2040 — viewed with skepticism by many during the 2018 campaign — now appears relatively moderate. Former vice president Joe Biden, widely viewed as the favorite in next week’s presidential election, has committed to achieving 100% renewable electricity nationwide by 2035.

Supporters of aggressive climate action say they’ll continue to put pressure on Platte River and other big polluters to act. In 2018, it was the efforts of grassroots activists in the utility’s member communities that helped push its board to make the historic zero-carbon commitment — and in the years to come, they plan to make sure it follows through.

“In January, we’ll have nine years left to do this,” Driscoll said. “We just have to keep the pressure on. That’s why the voice of the grassroots is so important. … If the activists weren’t there, and none of us were doing this work, we would end up with the status quo, which would have been coal and gas, with a tiny little smidgen of renewable energy.”

“We’re trying to change the status quo of the way these guys have been doing business for so long,” she added. “And it’s not going to happen overnight.”

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