The Boulder City Council has formally adopted a series of climate targets that, among other things, call for Boulder getting 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
The goals also call for the city to reduce community greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.
The Daily Camera reported that city leaders believed the goal was, in the paper’s words, “ambitious but doable.”
Getting 100 percent of the electricity Boulder uses from renewable is technologically doable. The real question is whether Boulder residents will really want to do it once they learn what doing it will take.
The climate goals were adopted unanimously by City Council, and polling shows goals of this sort are wildly popular – in principle. But I wonder if the City fathers and mothers have really thought through what they may be getting Boulder into.
They might start by asking themselves the following questions:
• Is Boulder prepared to allow wind turbines to be erected on local open space? It currently takes about 125 megawatts of generating capacity to supply Boulder with electricity (results vary from hour to hour, day to day, and season to season). State-of-the-art wind turbines generate 3 megawatts of electricity each when they are running at capacity, but because winds are erratic they crank out only about 35 percent of their rated capacity over the course of a year. (Conventional power plants routinely produce electricity at 80 to 90 percent of their rated capacity over the course of a year.) This means that if Boulder were to install 40 450-foot tall wind turbines on open space land – 120 megawatts of generating capacity – it would get only about a third of its electricity consumption from them. It would need more than 120 of these behemoths to get all of its juice from wind (batteries not included).
• Is Boulder prepared to allow solar arrays on Boulder open space? Like wind turbines, over the course of a year photovoltaic cells produce only a small fraction of the electricity they could produce if they could operate at their rated capacity 24/7 – about 15 to 20 percent as much. A square mile of 20 percent efficient solar cells has a rated capacity of about 240 megawatts, which means Boulder would need about 2.5 square miles of solar arrays to generate all its power with photovoltaics. Is it prepared to allow solar power panels to cover say 1,600 acres of open space?
• Alternatively, is Boulder willing to nag, pay or force the owners of more than 40,000 residences and businesses to install solar panels on say 70 million square feet of their roofs?
• And that’s just for openers. Is Boulder willing to install twice the foregoing amounts of wind or solar generating capacity to meet the needs of some 60,000 electric cars and trucks that the city would like to see replace the gasoline- and diesel-powered ones currently driven by Boulderites?
• But wait, there’s more. Is Boulder prepared to provide another big tranche of green electric generating capacity to replace the natural gas that currently heats about 99 percent of the city’s homes and businesses? And are Boulder residents willing to pay the higher utility bills likely to come with all-electric heat?
• Would Boulder be prepared to invest in other renewable or carbon-free energy sources like hydroelectric power? Would it be prepared to build new dams in the local canyons?
• The Boulder City Council wants to densify Boulder’s existing residential neighborhoods, and continues to stuff new development into every available nook and cranny in the 28th/30th Street corridor and North Boulder. (The term of art is “infill.”) Is Boulder prepared to increase its wind and solar generating capacity still further to meet the demand for additional electric power that comes from the additional population growth?
• Alternatively, would Boulder be willing to limit its population in order to limit its energy consumption? Would it be willing to throw affordable housing under the all-electric bus in order to achieve its renewable energy goals?
• Climate change will produce winners and losers. Winning in Boulder might involve milder winters and higher levels of rainfall. If climate modeling definitively determines that Boulder will be a winner, should it still continue to fight climate change?
• How much more is Boulder prepared to spend for green electricity than for natural gas generated electricity? Is the sky the limit? Or if you have to ask does it mean you can’t afford it?
• Is the Boulder City Council prepared to sit through scores of torch-and-pitchfork public hearings when people start to figure out just what sort of trade-offs will be required in order to have 100 percent carbon-free electricity?
And so on.
I get the sense that City Council has adopted its climate change proposals without thinking through the consequences of the commitment. It certainly hasn’t been very candid with the people as to what the commitment will entail.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the bestselling book The Black Swan, once remarked that “an idea starts to be interesting when you get scared taking it to its logical conclusion.”
By that standard, Boulder’s approach to fighting global warming is one of its more interesting ideas.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.
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