A Weld County farmer this week will take his seat on a renewable energy committee whose decisions could have large implications for the future of Colorado agriculture.
It’s not a position he’s taking lightly, said Prospect Valley-area farmer Marc Arnusch, who was recently selected to represent the agriculture industry on the Senate Bill 252 advisory committee.
The 12-member group was created by an executive order by Gov. John Hickenlooper, who signed the controversial SB 252 in June but also required that the affected and concerned parties come together to iron out the issues within the bill.
SB 252 calls for rural electric cooperatives in Colorado to produce 20 percent of their power through renewable sources by 2020 – an increase from previous legislation that required 10 percent renewable energy by 2020.
The hike in renewable-energy requirements raised eyebrows among many farmers, ranchers and dairymen, partly because of the increase in electricity costs that could trickle down to them.
Officials with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which provides electricity to 18 rural cooperatives in Colorado, has estimated the costs of meeting SB 252’s renewable energy standards would be about $1.5 billion to $2 billion, and those costs would be passed on to customers.
“I don’t think there’s a single farmer in this state who doesn’t want to broaden our sources of electricity,” said Arnusch, a grower of corn, sugar beets, wheat and other crops, and who’s a state board member for the Colorado Farm Bureau. “But it has to be done in an economically feasible way. This isn’t it.”
The SB 252 advisory committee begins its meetings Wednesday, with hopes that it will generate proposals for the 2014 legislative session.
One of Arnusch’s main objectives on the committee, he said, will be pushing for hydropower to be considered as a renewable energy source.
Tri-State is now producing about 7 percent of its electricity through wind and solar projects, and also gets about 12-15 percent of its energy through hydropower, according to company representatives.
But hydropower, according to SB 252 language, wouldn’t count toward the 20 percent mark.
Tri-State officials and the ag community, including Arnusch, have voiced frustration about hydropower not being considered a form of renewable energy, and say the only reason it isn’t is because hydropower wouldn’t create the solar and wind manufacturing jobs that SB 252 supporters desire.
Hickenlooper’s signing of SB 252 was one of “the straws that broke the camel’s back” for Weld County commissioners in beginning their push to create a new state along with other rural counties in northeast Colorado.
Hickenlooper even said in a statement after signing the bill that, while it represents the general direction Colorado needs to go, the bill itself is “flawed.”
Arnusch said farmers are already paying a pretty penny for the electricity they use.
The infrastructure needed to get electricity to rural areas is more vast per user than it is in urban areas. According to numbers provided by the Colorado Rural Electric Association, the number of customers per mile averages 35 for investor-owned utilities and 46 for publicly owned utilities, while co-ops typically serve 7.8 customers per mile.
The Colorado Energy Office has estimated that SB 252’s implementation would cost the average family about $2 per month, but that wouldn’t be the case for the average agricultural producer, Arnusch added.
Over the last three years, Arnusch estimates he’s paid about $150 per acre each year just for the electricity needed to operate his wells, used for pumping groundwater onto his crops and other purposes.
For the many ag producers in Colorado who farm hundreds or even thousands of acres, those costs add up in a hurry, Arnusch said, and any additional electricity costs stemming from SB 252 would put Colorado’s farmers at a competitive disadvantage to farmers in surrounding states, he added.
“Electricity costs are already to a point where it’s unaffordable,” said Arnusch, who noted that his family has installed water sensors and taken other water-management steps to reduce the farm’s water use. “Seeing any significant increases in electricity costs to pump water would basically make it impossible to continue farming the way we do. I view SB 252 as a water bill, as much as I do an electricity bill.”
Because of increasing water prices and uncertainty, Arnusch said his family this year has already more than doubled its acres of wheat – a less water-dependant crop than corn, but also a less-profitable one in most years.
Doing more of that and making other changes in the future would be necessary if SB 252 goes into affect as is, he said.
The language of SB 252 calls for a cap of 2 percent in increases to users’ annual electricity rates. However, Drew Kramer, public affairs manager for Tri-State, said calculating how much SB 252 would increase rates for all of Colorado’s rural cooperative customers will be “extremely difficult.”
Each of the cooperatives to which Tri-State provides wholesale electricity passes on their costs to their customers in different ways.
Supporters of SB 252 say the bill puts rural energy providers closer to the 30 percent renewable energy standard that’s in place for other electricity providers, such as Xcel Energy. But Kramer added that Tri-State, being a cooperative, doesn’t have investors and doesn’t get a guaranteed return on investment, like Xcel, and can only pass on its added costs to its customers.
“There are just so many misunderstandings between the sides, and these need to be ironed out,” Kramer said.
“Ag didn’t really have a voice when this bill was pieced together,” he said. “We do now, and we have to take advantage of that.