Colorado shows new path in climate solutions

I just spent a day in Washington D.C. talking exclusively to congressional Republican staffers about action on climate change. Here’s what I noticed: first, regardless of how conservative the office, young staffers uniformly agreed that climate change needs to be addressed. This was true right down to the employees of a Republican lobbying firm that helped advise me. I also found that virtually everyone would readily talk solutions, bypassing the conversation about science I have come to expect. To me, this experience suggests a new era in grappling with warming.

True, few Republicans were happy with the Environmental Protection Agency plan, announced June 2, to reduce the country’s carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030. They would have preferred congressional action. Who wouldn’t?  But with no such action forthcoming, the EPA rule is what’s for dinner. And for the first time at the national level, we are moving forward on the global need to cut carbon emissions.

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In Colorado, that’s turning out to be O.K. The buzz, from the EPA itself and within the blogosphere after the rule was announced, is that Colorado is a model for the regulations, and uniquely poised to meet EPA targets and thrive while doing so. The reason: a decade of visionary governors, starting with Bill Ritter (D) and continuing with John Hickenlooper (D). The result can be understood by looking at just one piece of the new energy economy—wind.  Colorado’s wind energy portfolio is already lighting the equivalent of over 870,000 homes, reducing power sector carbon emissions by 6.8 million metric tons last year, equivalent to 13.8 percent of the entire sector’s CO2 output. Compared to the EPA’s national goal of 30 percent less carbon by 2030, we’re looking pretty good.

Better, though, is the room we have left to grow. We have enough of a wind resource to power the entire state more than 24 times over, and Xcel Energy’s Colorado system has reliably produced more than 60 percent of its electricity from wind at a given time, a national record. In short, combined with solar and geothermal, and backed by natural gas generation that, thanks to a new state rule, will minimize methane leakage from wellhead to power plant, we have the capacity to transform the way we get our power. And we can do so while saving millions of dollars and creating jobs that are fading from the coal industry.

This economic case isn’t theoretical, and Colorado is proving the point. The state currently has 4,000 wind power jobs. Vestas, the Danish wind giant, has made our state its home-away-from-home, with four facilities churning out wind turbine components. Its stock rose 340 percent last year.  In this record year for new construction nationwide, Colorado is capturing a disproportionate share of the benefits. The renewables industry is aided and abetted by economic trends: the average cost of wind energy fell 43 percent between 2009 and 2012. Alongside wind, the price of solar panels has dropped from $76 per watt in 1977 to 75 cents a watt today. This means cheap power as much as it means carbon savings.

Again, looking at wind as a surrogate, the top 11 wind-producing states in the country have seen their electric rates decline. Those without wind have seen theirs shoot up. Not only does wind power make the grid more diverse, but because it uses no fuel, it is not subject to price spikes that often plague more traditional energy sources. Because wind energy prices are locked in for 20 years or more, wind acts as a valuable hedge against cost increases in other sources that can make for unpleasant surprises on a power bill. Those savings are real. Kurtis Haeger of the state’s Public Service Company found that just one Colorado wind farm, Limon II, would create cost savings of $278 million. It’s no wonder that GE’s stock recently climbed when it announced an investment in a 32 megawatt Japanese solar farm.  And for similar reasons, Warren Buffet may soon double his $15B investment in clean energy. Across the country now, wind and solar power is competing, and winning.

The reason is that free fuel, it turns out, is a great deal. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in May that keeping global warming below the dangerous threshold of 2°C would require clean energy investment of 1 percent of global GDP per year. They wrote: “The $44 trillion additional investment needed to decarbonize the energy system by 2050 is more than offset by over $115 trillion in fuel savings – resulting in net savings of $71 trillion.”

Maybe my trip to DC reflects a sea change in thinking about climate fixes that comes in response to reality. Not only do the facts speak for themselves in Colorado—we have nothing to fear, and lots to gain, from the clean energy economy—but people get it as well. According to a new Washington Post –ABC poll, the majority of Americans are ready to do something about greenhouse gas emissions.  My experience suggests this rings true: one staffer for a conservative and anti-climate action congressman said he wished he’d been born in a more progressive district, purely because of the climate issue.  Soon, and thanks to Colorado’s model, it won’t matter where you’re born: we’ll all be able to grab the prize of clean energy and climate solutions. 

Schendler is vice president of Sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Company.