The architect of Colorado’s “new energy economy” will offer some pointers this week on how Nebraska can lessen its reliance on coal-fired electricity while creating new jobs.
Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter will give a $20-per-person presentation Monday night in Omaha, discussing how Colorado has added more than 6,000 jobs while substantially increasing development of wind, solar and natural gas resources. He also will meet with elected officials Tuesday in Lincoln.
“I really try to make the business case for making the transition to clean energy,” Ritter said in a phone interview last week.
Ritter’s message, however, might hit a head wind of skepticism from Nebraska power generators.
Pat Pope, CEO of the Nebraska Public Power District, said some of the steps Colorado took would likely inflate consumer energy prices in Nebraska. Specifically, he said he would oppose a government mandate that sets minimum standards for the amount of renewable energy utilities must provide in their portfolios.
“It’s a clash with reality,” Pope said. “We just can’t run our economy on just renewables.”
Ritter, a Democrat, was Colorado’s governor from 2007 to 2011. He now directs the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.
The center works directly with governors, legislators and other policymakers at the state level to promote the development of domestic energy in ways that provide environmental and economic benefits. Ritter said that with gridlock in Congress, states are in a position to move more quickly on new energy initiatives.
While in office Ritter signed 57 energy bills, which he said helped attract 1,500 companies to the state. He also adopted a climate action plan that mapped out how the state could reduce 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
Key legislation prompted the conversion of some coal-fired electrical plants to natural gas, while other laws contributed to a tenfold increase in the state’s wind power development.
A more controversial law allowed expanded drilling for oil and natural gas while imposing new regulations that required drillers to better protect air, land and water. The measures generated resistance from those industries.
Ritter said the single most important initiative was to increase the state’s renewable energy standard. In 2004 voters approved a requirement that utilities generate 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources. By the time Ritter left office, the percentage had been increased to 30 percent for investor-owned utilities.
The requirement often is cited as the reason wind, solar and other renewable energy companies locate or expand in the state, according to a report published by the center.
Nebraska does not have a renewable standard on the books, but the state’s three largest electrical utilities — NPPD, Omaha Public Power District and Lincoln Electric System — have all set voluntary goals to increase their renewable energy portfolios. Mandating such standards would be a mistake, said Pope, NPPD’s chief executive.
Part of the problem, he said, is that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, so the sources can’t provide a constant supply to meet load demand around the clock.
Natural gas, which releases fewer carbon emissions than coal, can provide a base load, but Pope said much of the state lacks the pipeline infrastructure necessary to supply existing generating plants.
The state also needs more miles of transmission lines so it can export the excess electricity generated by wind. Pipelines and transmission lines are expensive, must clear regulatory hurdles and can meet stiff resistance from landowners.
“I’m just sure (Ritter) will advocate that we have one of the best wind potential resources in the nation,” Pope said. “I don’t have a problem with it, but let me do it when it makes sense for my customers. Right now I don’t have a need for it.”
State Sen. Ken Haar of Lincoln, an advocate for the expansion of renewable energy in Nebraska, said he has no intention of introducing a bill setting a renewable mandate. Frankly, he said, it wouldn’t stand a chance at passage.
But Haar is considering other energy-related bills. He argued that Nebraska needs to move faster in developing renewables and the economic benefits they can provide. He said he plans to attend Ritter’s presentations.
“We know at some point there’s going to be a cost for carbon pollution,” he said. “We have to move forward. We seem to move slower than all states around us.”
Ritter’s presentation at the Nebraska Conservation Summit on Monday will take place at the Scott Conference Center, 6450 Pine St. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the presentation starts at 6 p.m.
The Nebraska League of Conservation Voters and the Nebraska Conservation Education Fund are sponsors. Go to conservationsummit.com for more information or to purchase tickets.