Renewable energy has helped rural counties

Surprise, surprise?
The Colorado Statesman

Lawmakers on Wednesday heard from renewable energy industry leaders and county commissioners on how energy portfolio mandates are helping to increase business and create jobs, as well as boost tax revenues in rural Colorado.

The hearing before a joint meeting of the Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources committees came as Democrats have killed several Republican measures this year to scale back or repeal a rural renewable energy standard backed by Democrats last year.

Last session’s Senate Bill 252 required a rural renewable energy standard of 20 percent by 2020. Since the measure passed, Republicans have campaigned on the premise that Democrats are unsympathetic to the toils of rural Colorado.

In northern Colorado, 11 counties asked voters in November whether they would like to secede from the state. The initiative failed, despite using SB 252 as a rallying cry.

Republicans this year came back swinging, introducing several measures that have already been killed in committee, including:

• House Bill 1067, sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, which would have moved the rural RES target date to 2025;

• House Bill 1113, sponsored by Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, which would have reduced the standard from 20 percent to 15 percent;

• Senate Bill 35, sponsored by Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, which would have completely repealed SB 252; and

• House Bill 1138, sponsored by Reps. Stephen Humphrey, R-Severance, and Lori Saine, R-Dacono, which would have added hydropower to Colorado’s renewable energy list.

Following the votes, Harvey expressed his continued concern that Democrats are ignoring the will of rural Coloradans.

“Democrats have had three chances this session to cease their war on rural Colorado and all three times they instead chose to continue their assault on the wallets of our rural citizens,” declared Harvey, pointing to utility bill increases, which some ratepayers have alleged to be as high as 9 percent, despite a promise that the spike would be capped at 2 percent.

Harvey went on to point out that Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, expressed concerns upon signing SB 252 last year. The governor convened a committee to examine the law more closely and to report on whether it is attainable both from cost and implementation standpoints.

The committee — which included representatives from electric cooperatives — reported back that the mandate is achievable. Only two co-ops are affected: Tri-State Generation and Transmission and Intermountain Rural Electric Association.

Still, Harvey remains concerned about the impacts to rural Coloradans, adding, “Even though Gov. Hickenlooper himself recognized that SB 252 is a very problematic bill when he signed it, he has done nothing but pay halfhearted lip service to this issue since, and is nowhere to be found when it comes to taking real action to protect rural Colorado.

“Democrats fail to realize that in rural Colorado this isn’t a Republican or a Democrat issue, it’s a law that is opposed by voters from both parties,” Harvey continued.

House Republicans also expressed outrage over Democrats killing their efforts to change SB 252, suggesting that Democrats ignored hours of testimony.

“My bill was about establishing fairness for urban and rural electric suppliers by giving the areas of our state that have the most ground to cover a similar time frame to meet this burdensome renewable energy standard,” explained Conti.

She pointed out that during testimony, the co-ops said they were never consulted. Both Tri-State and Intermountain have also expressed concerns to The Colorado Statesman that SB 252 was crafted in secret without their input.

“What was most alarming was hearing that Democrats never once consulted the rural electric associations during the drafting of their law to determine how much time would be needed to reach a 20 percent renewable energy mandate,” said Conti. “That to me indicates Democrats are about advancing their extreme liberal agenda rather than determining what’s right for Colorado.”

Scott added, “Forcing some of our state’s poorest counties to comply with these extreme renewable energy expectations shows the Democrats’ complete disregard for rural Colorado.”

Rural counties report growth

But the message being advanced by Republicans was not loud and clear Wednesday during the joint Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources committee meeting. Lawmakers heard from rural county commissioners who have reported significant growth as a result of the renewables industry.

Those commissioners were unable to attend the meeting on Wednesday because of poor weather across the state, but their letters of support were read to committee members.

Bent County, in eastern Colorado, reported annual property tax revenue of $291,233 from the Twin Buttes Wind Power Project.

“These new revenues have been extremely helpful in meeting the needs of a small rural county that generally has little or no growth in assessed valuation,” stated the letter from the Bent County commissioners, signed by Chairman Bill Long.

The officials also reported royalty and lease payments to property owners, which they said has been incredibly helpful during the economic downturn.

“The payments have provided farmers and ranchers a second source of income, which has been extremely valuable during the difficult drought the regions continue to endure,” stated the letter.

Greg King, a Lincoln County commissioner, reported nearly $7 million in sales and use taxes from the Cedar Point Wind Project, also in eastern Colorado.

“That’s a tremendous economic benefit from that one specific project,” said Susan Innis, spokeswoman for Vestas Wind Energy, who read the letter on behalf of King.

She said the wind industry in Colorado alone employs an estimated 5,000 Coloradans, and has invested over $5 billion in the state. Last year was one of Vestas’ best sales years in the United States.

“We expect to be very busy throughout 2014 and 2015 and into 2016 as we produce wind turbines for these customer orders,” said Innis.

She said Vestas has been working with local workforce development centers to connect Coloradans with jobs, and that the company expects to pay its workers bonuses this year.

“Just another example of a great way Colorado is supporting business growth and job training and recruiting…” said Innis. “The policies that we have here, like the renewable portfolio standard, really help create opportunities for us to hire more workers.”

James Williams, the business development manager for Invenergy LLC, said his company spends about $150,000 per year on costs that go directly to local communities, such as phone and electric services and road maintenance.

“The business climate here is very good and we are continuing to pursue additional developments in the state and are excited about that,” explained Williams.

Democrats listening to the hearing were pleased to receive testimony indicating the positive benefits of renewable energy standards.

“I’m very appreciative of the industry. And the work we have done in this legislature has contributed to that,” said Rep. Steve Lebsock of Thornton.

Rep. Randy Fischer of Fort Collins credited former Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, with bringing Vestas to Colorado and expanding the new energy economy in the state.

“It was just a major economic development coup for Colorado and it all had to do with the change in attitude of how the state was going to move forward and Gov. Ritter and the legislature at that time just basically did a 180 in terms of our energy economy and that was the change that occurred back then,” said Fischer.

“It’s gratifying to know that our industry is strong and healthy and we’re creating new jobs,” he concluded.

Hickenlooper also joined with his support of the renewables industry this week, declaring Feb. 4 as Renewable Energy Day. The proclamation reads in part:

“Whereas Colorado has some of the nation’s most abundant and inexhaustible renewable energy resources, such as wind, solar, biomass, and small hydropower…

“Whereas Colorado hosts 2,324 megawatts of wind energy, ranking 10th in the nation, and 314 megawatts of solar energy development, ranking seventh in the nation; and

“Whereas the wind and solar industries alone have invested over $4 billion of private capital in generation projects, manufacturing plants, and supply chain operations…

“I, John W. Hickenlooper, Governor of the State of Colorado, do hereby proclaim Feb. 4, 2014 as Renewable Energy Day in the state of Colorado.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com