Democrats rolled out their long-awaited renewable-energy bills Wednesday, setting up a potential fight with rural electricity providers.
With the backing of a friendly governor, legislators put forward an aggressive set of bills that includes requiring 20 percent of Colorado’s electricity to come from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, by 2020.
“In many ways this is a historic day for the state of Colorado,” said Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, who was flanked by Gov. Bill Ritter, House Majority Leader Alice Madden and several Democratic lawmakers.
In 2004, voters approved a law requiring 10 percent of the state’s electricity to be from renewable sources by 2015. Xcel Energy, which serves the Front Range, is on track to meet the requirement years ahead of schedule, so a bill by Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, sets the bar higher – 20 percent by 2020.
Rural electric associations with fewer than 40,000 members were exempt from the 2004 law, and larger rural associations can vote to exempt themselves.
Asked if the new bill will apply to the rural utilities, Pommer simply nodded.
“We’ve had conversations about that, and yes, I support the ideas behind Representative Pommer’s bill,” Ritter said.
The statewide group that represents rural cooperatives is withholding judgment because its leaders have not seen the bill. But they are concerned.
“We have some cooperatives that have 2,500 members. Are they going to be included? I don’t know,” said Ray Clifton, executive director of the Colorado Rural Electric Association.
Clifton represents the 22 cooperatives – including La Plata and Empire electric cooperatives, which serve Durango and Cortez – that serve customers in most rural parts of the state. Each one has unique needs that might be challenged by Pommer’s bill.
“From the very beginning, we have said it’s not one size fits all,” Clifton said.
Some Republicans, too, were skeptical.
“Someone has to look out for the consumer in all of this. I think our new governor in particular has to be careful that he doesn’t become so enamored of alternative energy that he loses track of his responsibility to the rate-paying public,” said Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany.
Madden expects to see about a dozen bills on renewable energy, and her party highlighted six of them Wednesday.
One bill would allow rural cooperative customers to get credit on their bills for electricity produced from solar panels on their homes.
Another would encourage utilities to build new transmission lines to serve wind farms by allowing them to recoup the cost from their customers while the lines are being built, instead of waiting until construction is finished.
A separate bill would set aside money – it wasn’t disclosed how much – for schools to install windmills.
Last week, BP announced it will build a large wind farm on the Eastern Plains. Ritter said BP’s move “is an example of what will happen and what will continue to happen” because Coloradans have told the world they are open to the renewable-energy business.
Coal, oil and natural gas will remain important, Ritter said, but increasing renewable energy has bipartisan support. However, no Republicans joined the Democrats on stage at Wednesday’s news conference.
By Joe Hanel | Herald Denver Bureau
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