(Denver Post, May 16) Wind velocity abated in Colorado last week when the legislature adjourned for 2010. Noxious air masses continue moving across the state, however, flattening better judgment. Hang onto your hat and your wallet.
“Cleaner air and cheaper energy” was the slogan when voters mandated wind and other renewable sources for 10 percent of the state’s electric generation with Amendment 37 in 2004. Democratic legislators liked the idea so much that they upped the mandate to 20 percent in 2007 and boosted it this year to 30 percent.
One small problem: neither half of the slogan is true. You know what’s already happened to your rates from Xcel. Will costs level off with more reliance on renewables? Not according to the Energy Information Administration, which says in the coming decade wind will cost about 75 percent more than natural gas, 50 percent more than coal, and 25 percent more than nuclear. And solar will be twice the cost of wind.
But pollution is a different story, right? Surely a silently whirring wind turbine (never mind the bird fatalities) is better for air quality than a plant burning fossil fuels and belching carbon. You’d think so, but you’d be wrong.
During the years 2006-2009 here in metro Denver (designated a non-attainment area for special monitoring of our air pollution by the EPA), forcing wind into the electric-generation mix actually resulted in HIGHER emission levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, the principal components of ozone and smog – as well as higher emission levels of CO2, widely feared as a greenhouse gas. Oops.
Two obvious questions follow: How so? And says who? The “how” is a consequence of wind power’s intermittent reliability (online only about a third of the time), which requires coal-fired plants to cycle on and off more frequently and burn much dirtier as a result. The “who” is a consultancy called BENTEK [sic, all caps] Energy, based in Evergreen and nationally respected for such research as the wind study I’m citing.
“How Less Became More: Wind, Power, and Unintended Consequences in the Colorado Energy Market” is their report, commissioned by Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States and available at www.ipams.org. The methodology looks solid to this layman, though potential bias stemming from the study’s natural-gas sponsorship was fairly noted in the industry press after its April 19 release.
To cross-check the research, sponsors are seeking peer review from such institutions as MIT, Stanford, and the Colorado School of Mines. On the other hand, as a savvy oilman reminded me, “those guys are all on big federal grants for green research,” so their scientific impartiality can’t be taken for granted either. After East Anglia and Climategate, peer review isn’t what it was.
“How Less Became More” takes a sensible tone emphasizing tradeoffs instead of silver bullets or gotcha points. It recommends that electric utilities can avoid the wind-related emissions spikes by shifting generation from coal plants to natural gas as soon as possible. And this takes on national significance amid the current discussion of a federal mandate for renewables.
The trouble with mandates is that they beget more mandates, which beget more still. The meddling worsens and liberty weakens. So this year’s misbegotten generation conversion bill, HB 1365, sweetening the deal for Xcel at the expense of electric consumers for a speedy switch from coal to gas, was far from the clean green winner that some of my Republican friends believed. More mischief will follow.
Conservatives, so-called, who attempt to engineer kilowatts and particulates, forfeit credibility in criticizing liberals who attempt to engineer health care. Legislators trying to micromanage an industry will never get it right. Never. They’re delusional, like the Indiana House years ago when it decreed the value of Pi.
Markets yes, mandates no. Amendment 37 was backwards from the start.