Pivotal moments in basketball and our energy transition

The Nuggets are in the finals and NREL wants to create bioenergy for jets. Sometimes things happen quickly — but usually the seeds were planted long before.

May 26, 2023 3:30 am

U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper speaks during a visit to Colorado by Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, left. The event took place at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s campus in Golden on May 22, 2023. (Zoe Schacht for Colorado Newsline)

A version of this commentary originally appeared in Big Pivots.

We sometimes have pivots, long in the making but defined by moments. They occurred both in basketball and in Colorado energy on May 22.

In basketball, Nicola Jokić and the Nuggets dethroned the King, as LeBron James has long been known, and his Los Angeles Lakers. The Nuggets defied Vegas oddsmakers but their ascendancy was in plain view for four years. This will be team’s first finals appearance since entering the NBA in 1976.

In 1977, Colorado gained a national research laboratory, then called the Solar Energy Research Institute. Later renamed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL has expanded its missions to gain energy self-sufficiency. President Donald Trump in 2017 wanted to slash its budget. Congress refused.

Now, the federal government has given NREL another $150 million in a special allocation. One result among several will be a new research facility focused on creating bioenergy capable of fueling airplanes. Commercial airplanes and large business jets account for 3% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. In Aspen and Vail, I suspect it’s far higher. If batteries can power cars, buses, and even small aircraft, they’re heavy for long-distance air travel. Other solutions must be pursued.


Solar similarly once seemed like a long reach. Panels have become ubiquitous, and we’re just getting started in Colorado, owing in part to the seeds planted at NREL more than 40 years ago. By decade’s end, Colorado will almost certainly be at 80% renewable energy for our electrical generation and likely higher in some places.

That leaves us at the intersection of uncertainty and exciting opportunities. We still don’t know how exactly we will reach 100% emissions-free electricity nor how we can end emissions from long-haul transportation, concrete production and some other sectors.

At the NREL campus on Monday, U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper captured the essence.

“The future is now,” he said. “In 50 years, we’re going to look back on what’s happening in the next few years as part of this great transition where the world we knew gets left behind.”

That change, he acknowledged, will involve loss, a reference to the fossil fuel sectors being displaced. “We have to process that. But we don’t have too much time to spend mourning. We gotta move forward, because the future is now.”

Soon after, tours were conducted of the Research and Integration Laboratory, called RAIL. It will pursue answers to the riddle of plastic recycling to help curtail consumption of fossil fuels. The lab was designed to be flexible, though, to help solve other questions as they arise.

An hour before the tours and four miles away at the Colorado School of Mines, Gov. Jared Polis had signed several bills. The new laws contemplate possible solutions as Colorado stretches to achieve its emissions-reduction goals from 2030 to 2050.

Two of the laws anticipate using the subterranean space in ways to quell emissions or even stow carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere. A central player in this governance will be the Energy and Carbon Management Commission, which is a new name for an old agency.

This agency will have a broader mission than the oil and gas drilling that previously was its exclusive domain. One is potential tapping of underground heat to generate electricity. Another is governance of underground storage of hydrogen as Xcel Energy contemplates a potential project involving the Pawnee power plant near Brush.

Carbon capture and sequestration is a third possibility, but one hotly disputed by some environmental watchdogs, among them Leslie Glustrom, a biochemist. They are skeptical of the agency’s ability to regulate oil and gas, let alone other activities. Pipelines, both for oil and for carbon dioxide, have a history of ruptures. In 2022, residents of a rural area of Mississippi were left unconscious after a pipeline rupture left the odorless carbon dioxide spewing for four hours.

Dozens of bills addressing the energy transition were passed this year by Colorado legislators, a recognition of the need for swift actions proportionate to the risk of still-rising emissions. Even more striking was a report from northwest Colorado that Rangely, one of our most prominent oil and gas boom towns, plans to be engaged in the clean energy transition.

Speaking at NREL on Monday, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm noted that urgency.

“We have to do everything everywhere all at once to get to that 100% goal,” she said.

The work has begun on the changes that will be manifested beyond 2030. The path leading to the current basketball championship began in 2014 when the Nuggets drafted Jokić with their third draft choice that year. The Nuggets did not have high expectations. Some things take time — and then, all of a sudden they’re here.


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