Colorado Wildfire Climate Change Fail

The past couple of years have been rough on Colorado, in terms of climate change related disasters.  First a couple of record setting wildfire years, and then floods of “biblical” proportions.  At a gut level we know we have to respond, but our public discourse is having trouble addressing the root cause directly.  Instead we’re dancing around the issue, and failing to either adapt adequately to our new reality or to mitigate further climate change.

Adaptation?

Bills related to both the wildfires and last fall’s floods have been wending their way through our state legislature, and last week legislators and the governor held a press conference to highlight some of them, and a lot of the resulting commentary seemed to focus on the safety and well being of the firefighters and other emergency services workers that risk their lives on our behalf.  Largely absent from the discussion were the strong measures that the Governor’s wildfire task force put forward in the fall. They included:

  • Creating a wildfire risk map, and rating all properties on a scale of 1 to 10,  requiring that risk designation to be disclosed before any property sale, and making it available to insurance companies for use in setting their rates.
  • Charging those living in the “wildland urban interface” a fee based on their risk exposure, that would be used to defer some of the additional public costs incurred in protecting their private property.
  • Creating fire-resistant building codes for high risk areas, affecting both the materials used in construction, and requirements for defensible space around buildings.

Make no mistake: these are climate change adaptation measures, and Colorado has rejected them.

Firefighters in Waldo Canyon

As the Denver Post reported in September: developers didn’t like the idea of increased construction costs; the real-estate industry didn’t like the idea of making a lucrative market much less attractive; homeowners in high risk areas certainly didn’t like the idea of paying for the risks they’ve taken on, or making those risks transparent to potential buyers of their property.

Would the discussion be any different if people understood that the wildfire frequency and intensity is likely to just keep increasing as climate change marches on?  This is about as close as the article from September gets to mentioning climate change:

Colorado terrain ravaged by wildfire has quadrupled from 200,000 acres in the 1990s to nearly 900,000 acres in the 2000s.  “Scientists tell us this pattern isn’t going to change,” Hickenlooper said.

Why is the “pattern” there in the first place?  What kind of scientists was the Governor was talking to?  None of the press articles linked to from this post mention climate change even once, despite universally pointing out the trend.  For example: As Colorado wildfires continue to worsen, only moderate laws proposed.  And why are they worsening?  No comment.  Even the wildfire task force’s report mentions climate change only once in 80 pages.

Waldo Canyon Fire Aftermath

The only big risk factor we’ve talked about directly is where we choose to build our homes.  This is an important discussion too.  The overall wildfire risk — at least to human lives and property — is something like:

(human risk) = (area burned) x (pop. density in high risk areas)

Climate change will in large part determine how much of our state burns each year, but we have a choice about how many people and how much property to put in areas subject to burning.  Reducing our exposure to the increasing wildfire risk is an adaptation to climate change — an alteration of our behavior, in light of the expected risks going forward.  For the moment at least, we seem unwilling to listen to the warnings.

But hey, at least the state had a conversation, and decided not to do anything.

Cause and Effect

So what are the causes?  According to the US Forest Service, the enormous bark beetle kill is due in part to warmer winters, resulting from climate change.  These forests filled with dead trees are warm and dry for longer each year, lengthening the western US fire season by about 2 months.  So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the number of large wild fires per year has already increased from 140 in the 1980s, to 250 in the first decade of the 2000s.  This infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists is a good cartoon summary:

Western Wildfires and Climate Change

(see this paper for the references behind the infographic)

The third panel is probably the scariest for Colorado.  The dark red swath covering most of the western half of the state means that we expect more than six times as much land to burn each year in the near future, with just 1°C (1.8°F) of additional warming — and as Kevin Anderson and many others have pointed out, it is virtually certain that we will see another 1°C of warming… if not 3°C, or even more.

So our elected representatives are right to be concerned about increased risk from wildfires, and about the safety of the firefighters who try to protect us from those fires.  But we’re still missing the point:  We control our exposure to risk locally, and we control the magnitude of that risk globally.

Mitigation?

Policies aimed at avoiding or reducing climate change (like putting a price on carbon) are mitigation efforts.   We’re not talking about them much, even in the context of an obviously climate mediated risk like wildfires.  This is bad.  If we can’t have a conversation about what’s increasing the wildfire risks, how can we hope to respond appropriately?  Is our refusal to respond to change related to our refusal to accept the cause of the change?  Or is it more a kind of landscape amnesia — an inability to even see the change?  Are we going to forget what normal fire seasons looked like, in the same way that we’ve started to forget what a normal winter feels like:

Cold

Double Climate #Fail

Right now we’re managing to fail doubly with respect to climate change.  We are both unwilling to adapt to the foreseeable risks, and unwilling to even mention that these risks are linked to our greenhouse gas emissions, let alone talk about what we might do to mitigate those emissions and the risks that they create.

If we really care about our firefighters, if we really are intent on avoiding ever more costly and tragic conflagrations in our state, we need to both adapt and mitigate.  We need to start building for a warmer world now, and we need to stop warming the world as quickly as possible.

If you agree, look up the contact information for your Colorado state legislators and let them know.

Exploring a Carbon Price for Colorado

In May of 2013 I gave a talk at Clean Energy Action’s Global Warming Solutions Speaker Series in Boulder, on how we might structure a carbon pricing scheme in Colorado. You can also download a PDF of the slides and watch an edited version of that presentation via YouTube:

The short policy overview:

  • We should begin levying a modest carbon tax, in the range of $5 to $25/ton of CO2e.
  • The tax must be applied to the fossil fuels used in electricity generation (coal and natural gas). Ideally it should also be applied to gasoline, diesel, natural gas used outside the power sector, and fugitive methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, but those are less important for the moment.
  • New electricity generation resources must be allowed to compete economically with the operation of existing carbon-intensive facilities, and fuel costs must not be blindly passed through to consumers without either rigorous regulatory oversight, or utilities sharing fuel price risk.
  • Carbon tax revenues should be spent on emissions mitigation, providing reliable, low-cost financing for energy efficiency measures and a standard-offer contract with modest performance-based returns for new renewable generation.
  • Over time the carbon price should be increased and applied uniformly across all segments of the economy, with the eventual integration of  consumption based emissions footprinting for imported goods.

But wait… I can hear you saying, I thought James Hansen and others  were rallying support for a revenue neutral carbon tax proposal?  Even the arch-conservative American Enterprise Institute was looking into it, weren’t they?

A carbon price alone is not enough to get the job done — there are other pieces of our energy markets that also have to be fixed to get us to carbon zero.

Continue reading Exploring a Carbon Price for Colorado

When the River is Client

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!

Discounting Fuels

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.

Continue reading Discounting Fuels

Notes from the Plan Boulder County Commissioner Election Forum

http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaneselvans/7371250816

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?

Continue reading Notes from the Plan Boulder County Commissioner Election Forum

Colorado to preempt local regulation of oil and gas industries

Fracking site close to Platteville, Colorado

(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
E-Mail: joyce.foster.senate@state.co.us

JEANNE NICHOLSON, Vice Chair
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4873
E-Mail: jeanne.nicholson.senate@state.co.us

IRENE AGUILAR, MD
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4852
E-Mail: irene.aguilar.senate@state.co.us

Tim Neville
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4859
E-Mail: tim@nevilleforcolorado.com

ELLEN ROBERTS
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4884
E-Mail: ellen.roberts.senate@state.co.us

(h/t NRDC Switchboard and Colorado 350, also posted at The Boulder Blue Line)

Is an Energy Transformation Afoot?

SunEdison

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.