Xcel-erating natural gas in Colorado

State’s largest utility switches off coal

Colorado’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, has come to an agreement with the state government where it would retire coal plants powering about 900 megawatts by 2017 and replace them with natural gas-fired power. This move will mean a 30 percent reduction in Xcel’s Colorado coal fleet and a cut of as much as 5 million tons a year in carbon pollution. And this is all without federal legislation requiring cuts in emissions.   CAP’s Tom Kenworthy has the story in this repost.

Advances like Colorado’s are being made possible by technological advances in developing shale gas fields, which mean that the domestic supplies of the natural gas that can power electric plants with half the CO2 emissions of coal are 39 percent larger than previously thought. Gas-powered electricity can make it far easier to meet global warming pollution reduction limits established in the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed by the House last year. And a shrinking limit on carbon pollution that establishes a price on these emissions should propel the electric power industry to retire aging coal plants and utilize spare capacity in building natural gas plants. Gas electricity will mesh well with rising levels of clean electricity from wind and solar power since gas plants are easier to power up when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

Gov. Bill Ritter unveiled Colorado’s innovative agreement with Xcel Energy in a March 5 announcement of the Colorado Clean Air – Clean Jobs Act. And the state is now moving swiftly to enact the bill, backed by an unusual coalition of lawmakers from both parties, the gas industry, environmentalists, and Xcel, Colorado’s largest utility. The State House passed the measure 53-12 on March 22, and the State Senate will take it up early next week.

Some of the urgency comea from anticipated new clean air directives from the Environmental Protection Agency that will require Colorado to ease pollution on the state’s populous Front Range region that includes Denver. The plan to retire some of Xcel Energy’s coal-fired plants, said Ritter, “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.”

Yet the bill could face a challenging environment in the State Senate despite the broad coalition supporting the coal-to-gas bill. Organized labor is worried about a potential loss of coal-mining jobs in western Colorado, though most of the state’s coal production is exported. And some conservation groups from the same region are wary about ramping up natural gas development after a big run-up in drilling during the last decade brought a range of problems ranging from reduced air and water quality to increased costs for providing county services.

When the EPA relaxed oversight of the industry during the Bush administration, drilling permits soared in Colorado, more than quintupling from 1,529 in 2000 to 8,027 in 2008. Colorado responded to that surge in oil and gas development in 2008 by enacting a comprehensive overhaul of its rules governing oil and gas drilling with a much greater emphasis on protecting public health and safety and the state’s water and wildlife. Jim Martin, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, says the new rules are already doing a better job of better protecting the values that state residents cherish. And he expects the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act will only marginally increase drilling activity in western Colorado, which is well below its peak in large part because of the prolonged national economic downturn.

As Colorado increases its clean energy investments, its largest utility “got religion,” too. Xcel Energy opposed a state ballot initiative just six years ago to impose Colorado’s first Renewable Electricity Standard””a modest 10 percent by 2015. Yet Xcel has since then determined that clean energy is the future of Colorado and supports many efforts to invest in the clean energy technologies of the future. It supported legislation that ratcheted up the RES to 20 percent and did not oppose the most recent increase to 30 percent, which Ritter signed into law just last week. Xcel is the state’s largest utility with 1.1 million residential customers and is backing Ritter’s Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act, which will require Xcel to submit by Aug. 15 a plan for cutting nitrogen oxide emissions at its coal plants by up to 80 percent to meet current and upcoming federal requirements under the Clean Air Act.

And Colorado isn’t the only western state pursuing a clean energy future. The week, the developers of a planned 750-megawatt coal plant in Nevada announced they will shift to a 700-megawatt gas-fired plant combined with a 50- to 100-megawatt solar PV plant. Company officials said environmental concerns were the main driver behind the change. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that, “Clean natural gas projects like this will help us use this clean energy source to strengthen our economy while protecting Nevada’s great outdoors.”

11 Responses to Xcel-erating natural gas in Colorado

  1. sasparilla says:

    This is great news for Colorado, if we could shift a significant portion of Coal Plants to natural gas power, relatively quickly – that would be a relatively easy win (we could sure use a few of those).

    If we get an energy policy through the US Senate, we’ll probably see alot more of this sort of thing as power companies start cutting their losses on Coal.

    I do wonder what large scale increases in average US natural gas use would do to people’s heating bills in the winter though.

  2. Leif says:

    I do believe I hear a rustle in the bushes.

  3. but... says:

    Isn’t there huge concern over the water supply being polluted by natural gas drilling? I’m not even close to being and expert, but my understanding is that natural gas drilling can be disastrous for water supplies. (See this NOW story: )

    Any comments to help clarify this issue would be greatly appreciated.

  4. Leif says:

    sasparilla, #1: “I do wonder what large scale increases in average US natural gas use would do to people’s heating bills in the winter though.”

    At some point society needs to start looking at the big picture and factor possible rising energy costs, ( Added exploration and availability may lower costs of NG), against mitigating other greater costs. Disaster relief, health costs, environmental degradation, etc.

  5. Leif says:

    You would not be pulling a perverse April Fools joke on us, would you Joe?

  6. mike roddy says:

    We need to be careful here. This piece is far too fawning, especially in repeating phrases like “clean energy future”.

    Natural gas is hardly clean, due to its CO2 emissions alone. Saying that these are half of coal as if this is a big compliment is a stretch. There is also the issue of poisoned water supplies, rampant under unregulated (thanks to Bush era EPA exemptions) fracking. I recommend the documentary movie Gasland, which covers aquifer poisoning in Colorado, too, in spite of industry claims that everything’s fine in the Colorado gas fields.

    Exxon Mobil just paid $31 billion for XTO, a natural gas company, and they’ve picked up on the “transition fuel” talking point. Transitioning to clean power in 30-40 years, by which time actual renewable and clean energy will be “ready”, is just another way to lie and stall, skills they are quite good at.

    I have a bad feeling about a company with Exxon’s track record moving into this market. They can pay off every Congressman and regulator they need with change they pick up behind their couches. The media is starry eyed, but I’m disappointed that CP seems to be biting. If Exxon takes over the gas market and succeeds in selling every cubic foot they can, goodbye liveable planet.

    We can get serious about wind and solar right now if we want, with prices that will either remain stable or decline. The future of gas prices is anybody’s guess.

  7. Ken Johnson says:

    “This move will mean … a cut of as much as 5 million tons a year in carbon pollution. And this is all without federal legislation requiring cuts in emissions.”

    If federal cap-and-trade legislation is enacted, would the Colorado action have any impact on national emissions, or would the 5-million-ton reduction just allow 5 million more tons of emissions somewhere else?

  8. Bob Wallace says:

    I’d like to highlight this sentence…

    “Gas electricity will mesh well with rising levels of clean electricity from wind and solar power since gas plants are easier to power up when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.”

    Taking existing coal plants and turning them into dispatchable gas plants is a huge improvement. Short term, we get a significant decrease in CO2 simply by shifting the type of fossil fuel we burn.

    Down the road, we can minimize the amount of time we run these plants as we bring more solar and wind on line. We might not be far from a time when these old dogs lie idle except for hot summer days after the sun goes down but people still want to run their air conditioners.

  9. Tom Kenworthy says:

    Tom Kenworthy responding to but (#3):There is certainly quite a bit of concern about natural gas drilling and water, particularly the impact of the widespread technique of hydraulic fracturing, in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped at high pressure into well bores to fracture deep underground rock formations to release gas. Two concerns there: whether the chemicals, some of them toxic, can contaminate underground drinking water supplies; and whether once withdrawn after fracturing the fluid can contaminate surface water if it escapes from holding ponds before being trucked or pumped away for treatment. The EPA just recently announced it is going to do a major study. And legislation introduced in the House and Senate would require oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use and also remove a 2005 Energy Act provision that exempts fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

  10. Maybe there is no Federal legislation – but CO has a 30% renewable by 2020 RES, which is stick enough.

  11. GlowInTheDarkBoy says:

    re: waste water from “fracking” natural gas dept.

    Considering that the shales that are being drilled to produce the big new US gas supplies are radioactive enough to have been considered as uranium ore in the past, the idea that it is good news that this gas is going to be used to replace coal seems preposterous.

    Going further, considering that merely using regular gas causes the consumer to be exposed to 10 – 15 times the radioactivity than living right next door to a nuclear plant, obviously, using this new “fracked” radioactive gas will cause greater exposure.

    And consider this: if a reactor such as Vermont Yankee were actually to be closed, the electricity produced would have to come from somewhere. Something the size of Vermont Yankee produces about 50% more electricity in a year than the entire solar electric output of Germany.

    Giving the radioactivity emissions of the fossil fuels a free pass because authorities tell us the risk is so low it is not worth bothering about, while crucifying the radioactive emissions of nuclear plants which are orders of magnitude LOWER, supposedly because there is no level of radioactivity that does not cause harm, is INSANITY. The IPCC has stated and restated, the latest time in AR4, that nuclear power is as low a CO2 emitter as renewables.

    The total amount of tritium that leaked at Vermont Yankee was less than what used to be packaged up into a glow in the dark key fob marketed as a curiosity in the US. This is what the big noise was about. Less than one key fob’s worth of radioactivity. A coal plant puts out 2-5 tons of uranium and thorium in its ash each year.

    We’d support shutting down more than the entire solar output of Germany over less radiation exposure than what was in one lousy glow in the dark key fob? We’d cheer as more natural gas which emits far more radiation never mind the 22 times more CO2 emissions, is brought online? No wonder the planet is being killed.

    No one is making any sense.