Environmental issues have been front and center in Colorado this year. No wonder: The state’s natural beauty is perhaps its greatest treasure. Yet in the midst of the discussions over fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and other important issues, one topic has remained relatively hidden: renewable electricity standards.
RES laws mandate that utilities generate a certain percentage of electricity using renewable sources, regardless of cost other considerations. There are 30 states with mandatory RES laws on the books; the federal government has not yet established a national standard. Colorado’s, for instance, requires that 10 percent of energy should be renewable by 2015, increasing to 30 percent by 2020.
Mounting evidence shows that these policies have been a colossal failure. Nonetheless, Sen. Mark Udall wants to lead the fight to establish a national 25 percent renewable energy standard, regardless of each state’s desires, existing policies, or existing energy resources.
While the goal of the RES is to cut carbon dioxide emissions and thereby improve the environment, in Colorado the standard has had two main adverse effects. It has raised electricity prices for families and businesses, as well as increasing key air pollutants.
The first effect is easy to understand: Renewable energy sources are more expensive than their traditional counterparts. For example, wind power is 127 percent more expensive than natural gas and 91 percent more expensive than coal. Wind power is the biggest beneficiary of RES laws since there is wind in every state. Following the passage of Amendment 37, wind power has grown by more than 2600 percent in Colorado.
Unsurprisingly, wind power’s growth in Colorado coincided with a rapid increase in the electricity prices. Since 2004, residential and commercial electricity prices have both gone up by 36 percent. Higher electricity prices ultimately mean less disposable income, higher prices, and fewer jobs. Other states have been similarly affected. The American Wind Energy Association reported earlier this year that electricity prices have increased at four times the national rate in the most wind-friendly states.
The other effect appears to be a head scratcher at first glance. How can increased renewable energy generation lead to higher pollutant emissions? Wind power again provides the answer.
A 2010 study by Bentek Energy found that wind power suffers from serious environmental drawbacks in Colorado. While the “wind may come sweeping down the plain” in “Oklahoma,” that does not occur every minute of every day in Colorado. Because of this basic truth of nature, wind farms require constant back-up from coal and natural gas-fired plants, which is known as “cycling.”
Cycling causes gross inefficiency in power plants. In that sense, it’s no different than a car’s gas mileage. Just like stop-and-go city driving in Denver leads to lower miles per gallon compared to the consistent speed of driving on I-25, power plants are much more efficient when they run at the steady pace for which they were built.
Wind power decreases this efficiency by causing power plants to periodically shut down and re-start, both of which are energy-intensive processes. The plants ultimately release more emissions into the atmosphere than they would have without wind’s intervention. That’s exactly what has happened in Colorado since the state implemented its RES in 2004.
But there’s another wrinkle: The cost of renewables is not just reflected in the increased cost of energy to customers. All taxpayers, whether or not their state has an RES law, pay for renewables through the Federal Production Tax Credit (PTC). In 2012, wind farms in Colorado received $46 million in taxpayer dollars. Even though the PTC was passed in 1992 to kick start renewable energy sources and has long since achieved that goal, Sen. Udall would like it to be extended.
Colorado’s RES mandate is directly responsible for both higher electricity prices and more pollution. Nonetheless, Udall wants to nationalize a policy that hasn’t worked in his own state while pushing for the extension of an unnecessary and wasteful federal subsidy. In both cases, Coloradans should be aware that he is ignoring the economic and environmental evidence – and Colorado will ultimately pay the price for his neglect.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding