The Self Sufficiency 2016 campaign hosted by the League of Women Voters of Boulder County has been pushing for a living wage in Boulder, and City Council talked about it last week. Employees of the University of Colorado have also been pushing for a $15 minimum wage. Unfortunately CRS 8-6-101 prohibits a city or county from setting a minimum wage, so we can’t simply pass a local minimum wage like Seattle, WA and Los Angeles, CA. Our state statue includes some kind of Orwellian justification for the prohibition. It says that the welfare of Colorado depends on workers having adequate wages, and therefore cities and counties shall not be allowed to regulate wages. Uh, what? Here’s the code:
Design Explorations of the Lower Colorado River, a landscape architecture course taught by a friend of mine at Cal Poly, in which the Colorado River is taken to be the primary client, and human needs are assumed to be real, but secondary. All we have left is gardening. We might as well do a good job of it!
It’s often been said that “time is money,” and it turns out to be more than an aphorism.
I’m going to try and tell you a story about discounting, which is one of the ways that we convert between time and money. The story has broad implications for the energy investments we choose. It’s not entirely straightforward, and if it’s going to make sense there are some background pieces you’re going to need. The background is important because the ending depends not only on understanding what is being done, but why. This story happens to be about Xcel Energy and Colorado, but the same thing happens in other places, with other companies, and in other contexts too.
To greens my argument may seem circumspect. I’m not going to challenge the doctrine of Everlasting Economic Growth. I’m not going to look at the large externalized costs of burning fossil fuels. I’m not going to argue against the monopoly electrical utility model. Those are important discussions to have — they’re just not the one I’m having here. What I’m trying to do is show that a minor change in the way we calculate the cost of future energy can drastically alter what kind of power we decide to invest in for the next century, even if we only look at the decision in selfish financial terms.
To the finance geeks among you, much of the background will be familiar, but the situation may seem strange unless you’re familiar with how regulated monopolies work. I haven’t been able to find anyone familiar with energy finance who thinks what we’re currently doing makes sense, but if you’ve got a thoughtful rebuttal, I’m genuinely interested to hear it.
Two of the three Boulder County Commissioner’s seats are up for grab this year, and it’s all but given that whoever secures the Democratic Party’s nomination will end up winning the election. In District 1 (which includes the city of Boulder as far east as Foothills, see this map) we are losing former Boulder mayor Will Toor, who has served two terms — the maximum allowed. Vying for his place are Elise Jones and Garry Sanfaçon. On June 1st, PLAN Boulder County held a lively candidate forum, moderated by Alan Boles.
My notes are necessarily an incomplete record of the exchange. Unless otherwise indicated by quotation marks, the words below represent my paraphrasing of the candidates statements.
As an introduction, Boles first asked: Who are you, and why are you running?
Elise Jones responded that given the political situation at the state and national level, she felt local politics is where important changes are likely to happen. She cited her 8 years on the Boulder Planning Board, and more than 20 years working on environmental protection statewide as relevant experience, giving her an intimate understanding of land use issues. She stated that she is the only candidate with experience working to regulate the oil and gas industry, and that this has been one of her primary focuses over the last decade, “Ever since Dick Cheney declared war on the West.” She was supportive of ending GMO use on county open space, and highlighted climate change as the single largest looming issue facing us (and the world) today, especially given the occurrence this year of some of the warmest, driest spring months on record.
Garry Sanfaçon spoke about his son who just graduated from Nederland High School. He wants his son to be able to move back to Boulder County some day, and the importance of making sure that we have both jobs and affordable housing to make it possible for regular folks to keep living here. He highlighted his experience working for the county as the Fourmile Canyon Fire recovery director, as a member of the Boulder County Planning Commission, and as a visioning facilitator for various organizations. Sanfaçon stated that he’s the candidate taking the “strongest positions” on GMOs and fracking, and said that if elected he “would vote to ban them on day one.”
From the looks exchanged during the introduction, it became clear pretty quickly that fracking was going to be a hot issue, and Boles went directly to it asking: Fracking appears to be a state regulatory issue, and the state is currently dropping the ball. What can we really do about it, from a legal point of view?
(Fracking site close to Platteville, Colorado by Senator Mark Udall on Flickr)
With the introduction of the Halliburton Loophole in 2005 the Federal government largely abdicated its role in regulating the water quality impacts of oil and gas extraction. Local governments have been forced to step up, and communities in Colorado has been at the forefront of that effort. Routt County now requires stringent baseline water quality testing (PDF) before development can begin, and monthly re-testing during operations. The city of Longmont has banned all surface pits (PDF). The oil and gas industry is striking back against these efforts, with Colorado Senate Bill SB12-088 (PDF) which would preclude local governments from regulating oil and gas operations. If passed, this bill would slam the door on any potential regulation of fracking on our county open space lands.
A messy patchwork of different regulations in every little jurisdiction would be costly and legally dangerous for the oil and gas industry. The credible threat of such a patchwork is one of the few points of leverage we have, to get them to accept reasonable regulations at the state or national level.
If you’d like to retain the right to regulate — locally — the activities of these industries then please call and write the Senate Local Government Committee listed below. You may also attend and testify at the public hearing on the bill if you wish: Thursday, Feb. 16th at the Capitol Building, Senate Committee, Room 353, likely between 9:15 and 9:45am.
JOYCE FOSTER, Chair
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4875
JEANNE NICHOLSON, Vice Chair
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4873
IRENE AGUILAR, MD
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4852
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4859
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4884
Almost immediately after we empowered Boulder to form a utility, a spate of articles appeared in the national press talking about the relative costs of coal and renewables, and the trends in those costs. There was Krugman’s Here Comes Solar Energy Op-Ed in the NY Times, making the case that solar PV is already cheaper than coal-fired power once you remove all the subsidies we provide to both of them, and calling for the Feds to fix regulation to make that clear. Boulder’s own RMI had a bit of commentary on Krugman’s opinion: it’d be nice if Federal regulations were saner, but even without that fix, it makes sense to build this stuff now, and will only make more sense as time goes on and the balance of system costs (which currently make up 50% or more of the cost of a PV installation) are reduced through best practices, standardization and mass production.
From the industry side, GE’s Jeff Immelt also said that federal regulation was a little beside the point now… and that even without government support GE was going all-in, expecting something like 200GW of solar to be built in China and India by the end of the decade. That’d be a non-trivial amount of generation, on the order of 10 Three Gorges dams, or as much power as the entire US nuclear generation fleet. Meanwhile NRG Energy, a nationwide and largely traditional fossil-fuel based independent power producer is planning to spend the overwhelming majority of its capital investment funds over the next few years on solar, mostly small utility projects (20-100MW) and distributed rooftop generation.
In the same vein, Xcel Energy’s recently filed 2011 Electric Resource Plan foresees essentially no new generation facilities being built until close to the end of the decade. Some of this is attributable to the soft economy, but many people are saying it’s just as much a consequence of energy efficiency, demand side management, and increasing distributed (behind-the-meter) generation coming on line. Unfortunately, Xcel added a gigawatt of coal generation to its grid last year, and this lack of demand for more energy means the company is now walking away from the transmission lines that would have enabled large-scale solar-thermal with storage in the San Luis Valley. This means that the only way to shift Xcel’s power mix in the near future will be to accelerate the retirement of existing coal-fired generation, making room for more efficiency, wind, and solar.
The optimistic narrative that falls out of the articles above — that our energy systems are undergoing a transformation — seems plausible, and I hope that it’s true. Certainly it’s the one that the Boulder Light and Power effort is going to be built around. It’s comforting to see that we’re not alone on the world stage, and less daunting to imagine our job as facilitating an ongoing transformation, rather than starting one from scratch.
Xcel appears to be backing away from new transmission lines to the San Luis Valley. This infrastructure is required to implement the several hundred megawatts of solar-thermal generation that they proposed in their 2007 resource plan. Solar thermal is the only renewable power (other than pumped hydro, which has limited availability) for which energy storage is potentially feasible right now (e.g. using huge tanks of molten salt). It’s interesting to contrast the utility’s statements on the San Luis Valley project with what they’re saying about the Pawnee retrofit, and what they said about the Comanche 3 plant.