In Colorado, renewable energy is getting big -- and battles over coal power are getting bigger.
Monday, November 9, 2009 - 15:38
FAVORABLE WINDS: Wind-generated power supports Colorado's renewable energy economy -- but it faces stiff competition from coal. (Photo: Lauren Buchholz)
The future of energy efficiency in Colorado is looking bright, but the state will have to pass through a few storms in order to get there.
The good news for environmentalists and eco-inclined businesses is that Colorado is shaping up to become one of the leaders in developing the means for generating and transmitting renewable energy. The breezy plains just east of the Rockies have long been testing grounds for several wind-powered generator projects supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, whose 20-meter-long blades are clearly visible from Denver and the surrounding region. Nor is the strength of Colorado's winds limited to governmental use: the successes of numerous personal ventures have inspired OtherPower, a local group of self-proclaimed "alternative energy enthusiasts," to provide a how-to handbook on building your own wind turbine.
Wind power takes a firm second place, however, to the true hero of Colorado's renewable energy story: solar. While it may be slightly misleading to say that the state actually receives the much-touted figure of 300 days of sunshine per year, Colorado does see some degree of sun nearly every single day -- and the light hitting the state's 5,000'+ elevations is intense. These combined factors have encouraged solar-panel and solar-thermal generator use by everyone from university directors to private homeowners, and have attracted the interest of numerous companies looking to start ventures in the field of solar-generated electricity. A story by The Denver Post last month highlighted promising prospects for the field, which has received $4 billion from venture capitalists and hedge funds since 2004 and is expected to see energy demand double over the next three years. While the article focuses on two innovative local solar companies in particular -- Ascent Solar Technologies Inc. and Abound Solar Inc., both based along the Front Range -- plenty of other contenders are also preparing to take advantage of Colorado's solar-friendly environment: plans were recently announced for the development of 15 new solar-panel factories in the state over the next few years (Source: The Denver Post, October 2009).
Yet although the future of Colorado's renewable energy frontier is encouraging, battles against the current use of fossil fuels in the state remain at the top of many environmentalists' lists. Colorado currently gets nearly 67 percent of its total energy from coal power, putting it in the upper half of all states in terms of relying on the fuel for electricity. The demand is actually shrinking: Xcel Energy, Colorado's largest electric power supplier, cited a "significant reduction in demand for electricity" as the reason for the company's six percent cut to its proposed 2015 energy needs earlier this year.
A few prominent state environmental groups are in an uproar, however, over Xcel's newest coal-fired power plant near the southern city of Pueblo, which is set to go online by the end of 2009. The plant will be the largest in Colorado, generating enough electricity for close to a fifth of the state's entire populace -- but at a high price. From a financial perspective, Xcel customers will see a bill increase to pay for the $1.3 billion plant, while from an environmental one, heavy metals and acid gas will be released regularly, further contributing to the 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions generated by coal-powered plants (Source: The Denver Post, November 2009).
The battle to replace Colorado's reliance on fossil fuels with renewable energy won't end with the conclusion of the debate over Xcel's latest plant, and it is likely that the state -- along with the rest of the U.S. -- will continue to require energy generated from non-renewable sources for some time. With the advent of a growing renewable resource industry, however, Colorado is heading in the right direction for an energy-efficient future: a prospect for the state's environment that shines brightly, indeed.
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