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Colorado Shoots for 30% Renewable Energy by 2020, a Stark Contrast to Its Neighbors

Colorado’s legislature approved one of the toughest renewable energy standards in the country on Monday.

Once the governor signs that legislation, utilities will be required to get 30 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. That follows an agreement Gov. Bill Ritter signed last week with Colorado’s largest utility, Xcel, and a coalition of energy companies and lawmakers to reduce pollution and shift several coal-fired power plants to natural gas by 2017.

The state’s clear move toward renewable energy — and away from coal — stands in stark contrast to some of its neighbors in the West, where the best and some of the worst of clean energy policies are on display.

Colorado’s recent history of renewable energy and efficiency benchmarks began in 2004, when it became the first state to put a renewable energy standard vote before the general public instead of the legislature. The move passed, barely, and since then, the momentum has picked up dramatically. Investor-owned utilities are currently required to produce at least 20 percent of electricity by 2020; the bill that just passed the Colorado Senate 21-13 and the House 37-27 will increase that requirement to 30 percent.

“Colorado’s New Energy Economy is already leading the country toward a cleaner and more secure energy future,” Ritter said.

“This proposal will keep Colorado at the forefront of America’s energy revolution. It will protect consumers, clean our air and protect public health, and create new jobs by increasing demand for Colorado-produced natural gas.”

Whither Utah?

If Colorado is at the forefront of the energy revolution, some of its neighboring states are bringing up the rear. Utah, although with similar renewable resources as well as being similarly situated atop extensive coal and gas deposits, appears to be backsliding on the issue. The state legislature has taken aim at climate change, issuing a resolution that questions the science and urges the EPA to drop any moves toward regulating greenhouse gases, and the state’s current renewable energy portfolio standard is only a “goal” for utilities to get 20 percent of their power from cleaner sources by 2025.

Lawmakers also have aimed to limit the liability of companies that might harm the environment or human health as a result of greenhouse gas-related effects, even though their resolution shows that many at least publicly say they don’t believe what the science shows.

“Contradictory is actually a specialty of the Utah legislature,” said Mark Clemens, of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter. “Or, intellectual inconsistency, one could say. Certainly the resolutions are mostly just hot air, and there has been a huge amount of that on Utah’s capitol hill this year.”

Clemens pointed out, though, that not all of the legislature’s actions have been more symbolic than substantive. Senate Bill 242 was introduced as a renewable energy tax credits bill, but then was amended drastically: “Renewable” turned into “alternative,” and the latter now includes energy from petroleum coke, shale oil and tar sands along with standard renewable energy sources.

Clemens said that the bill appears to be “sailing through” the state legislature; it passed the Senate with only one dissenting vote.

Executive Influence

For two states with similar energy resources, what might the difference be between Colorado and Utah? According to many, Colorado’s Gov. Ritter plays an important role.

“I’d say he plays the single biggest role,” said Phil von Hake, communications director for the Colorado Renewable Energy Society.

“Utah has at least as good solar resources as we do, I just haven’t heard much in the form of aggressive policy coming out of there. In Arizona, their solar industry is finally flexing its muscle, but again they’re having to fight a very reactionary legislature. Whereas our governor, our legislature, our public utilities commission, have been taking very forward-looking steps to promote more renewable energy.”

Ritter’s renewable energy accomplishments include expanding the original voter resolution to the portfolio standard today, as well as forming the Governor’s Energy Office and, according to von Hake, “addressing climate change in a way that no governor ever has.”

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