Let’s talk about a little place called Aassspen. Jared Polis, member of Congress from Boulder and a Democratic candidate for governor of Colorado, touts a “bold goal of 100% renewable energy” in the state by 2040. Surely Colorado can do it, he suggests on his campaign page, given that Colorado’s own Aspen “became the third city in the country to already achieve 100% renewable.”
But Polis’s claim about Aspen is pure fantasy, and, insofar as Aspen does run on renewable energy, various aspects of its power program are unique to the wealthy ski town and cannot be scaled statewide. Polis’s inflated claims about Aspen cast doubt on the plausibility of his goals for the state.
Important details of Aspen’s program are revealed by a pair of articles by Grace Hood for Colorado Public Radio and National Public Radio. Consider some of the pertinent facts drawn from Hood’s reports (the commentary is mine):
- The “renewable” claim pertains only to part of the electric grid, not to the entire population. “Today, only about half of Aspen residents technically get electricity that’s 100 percent renewable energy,” Hood writes. The rest get power from a company “whose power mix is about 30 percent renewable energy.” (I’m not sure whether Hood is going by official city limits.)
- Nor does the “renewable” claim pertain to the many gas-powered vehicles that people drive around Aspen, nor to the jet-fueled planes that carry the rich and famous to Aspen, nor to the natural-gas-powered furnaces that heat the homes and businesses of Aspen.
- Notably, because few normal people can afford to live in Aspen, “thousands of commuters [drive] into Aspen every day for work.” So not only is gasoline use relatively high around Aspen, but none of those commuters use Aspen’s “renewable” energy once they return home. Colorado could achieve 100 percent renewable energy no problem, if it didn’t count gasoline and made everyone with a blue-collar or service job commute in from Wyoming or Kansas.
- Aspen relies on two hydroelectric plants for around 46 percent of its electricity. Hydro is great, but obviously it’s available only in select areas. Notably, Aspen could have built a third hydro plant, and indeed it spent millions on the project before voters rejected it on environmental (!) grounds. “Today Aspen still owns a $1.4 million hydropower turbine and generator” it’s trying to sell, Hood writes.
- The major business around Aspen, the ski resorts, get their electricity from the company that uses a minority of renewables. So “renewable” Aspen is a model for Colorado only if the state wishes to force the businesses that use a lot of electricity to move beyond state lines.
The upshot is that Polis’s claims about Aspen are exaggerated. Maybe we’re supposed to take Polis seriously and not literally here.
The facts about Aspen’s energy use, of course, do not imply that it is impossible to achieve true 100 percent renewable energy in Colorado (or close to it) by 2040. Whether that’s a worthwhile goal is a different matter, and a key issue is cost, which is undoubtedly huge. As a point of reference, Colorado now gets only about 18 percent of its electricity from solar and wind, while we get 78 percent of our electricity from coal and natural gas and run our cars and heat our homes almost entirely with fossil fuels. If Polis wants to persuade skeptical voters that he’ll avoid magical thinking that puts the state on the path to economic disaster, he’ll need to pop his Boulder bubble and convince people he’s living in reality.
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A few related sidepoints are worth discussing here:
1. “Aspen got its electric utility to 100 percent renewable energy through the use of power purchase agreements” with companies located elsewhere, Hood reports. I haven’t looked into the details, but I’d be curious to learn whether these agreements involve true “100 percent renewable” energy or function by some sort of averaging, where renewables “offset” fossil fuel use. I wonder about this because, when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, something else has to fill in. Perhaps hydro plants and the like are adequate for Aspen.
2. A document by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory points out that Aspen defined nuclear power as non-“renewable.” But there’s nothing magical about the “renewability” of an energy source. Although fossil fuels are not “renewable” within the human timeframe, proven oil reserves have increased dramatically over the the last few decades. Nuclear power may not be “renewable,” but there’s no practical danger of us ever running out of it. What’s really at issue is the release of carbon dioxide. Nuclear power releases zero carbon dioxide, and it already provides a substantial amount of the world’s electricity. So why does Aspen ignore it, and where is Polis’s policy statement about it?
3. With Congressman Ed Perlmutter out of the governor’s race, Polis seems to be the leading candidate. He certainly has the money. Polis’s position on energy likely will become his biggest political problem—although such things are hard to predict this far out. Liberty minded voters probably won’t like important aspects of Polis’s energy program, but they’ll probably find other things to like about the candidate. For example, Polis supports free international trade, he stands against federal intrusion into state marijuana policies, and he defies Donald Trump’s demonization of immigrants. As an indication that Polis is not a typical Progressive Democrat, I first met Polis (if memory serves) at an event featuring Milton Friedman. He’s a smart, independent-minded, and eloquent guy. He’s one of my favorite members of Congress (he used to be my representative before the lines shifted), whatever our disagreements. So it will be interesting to see how the race plays out.
Image of Jared Polis: Jeffrey Beall
Jared Polis Replies
Thank you for fact checking my statement and for holding my feet to the fire! Some of your points are valid, but I still think you are missing the forest by focusing on a tree. Renewable energy is becoming less and less expensive and while that is an important variable in any plan, I believe that that trend is more likely to continue than not. Our last two governors have supported movement towards renewable energy I hope to build upon that base.
Aspen touts 100% renewable energy, and indeed it is their municipal utility not Holy Cross Power that has reached that goal. The City of Aspen only controls their municipal utility, the boundaries of Holy Cross go well beyond Aspen. I will make a technical correction indicating that the “area served by Aspen’s municipal utility” are 100% renewable to avoid any confusion.
There is nothing wrong with your point about commuters, but that is not directly related to this debate. My plan is for renewable energy for the grid. There is an intersection as electric vehicle usage increases (a rounding error at this point but potentially significant by 2040) but my plan is not directly about automobile emissions. It’s a fair point, but I was talking about electricity.
Wind is now so cheap in CO that utilities can, and will, probably, retire coal plants while switching to wind and still reduce costs for ratepayers. Solar is also inexpensive and getting cheaper. The Colorado PUC did a study showing that wind investments by XCEL will save ratepayers $100 million over 25 years.
Yes, Aspen has a very high percentage of hydro energy which both 1) IS available to many other communities as a cheap, inexpensive energy source and 2) is NOT universally available across CO. Hydro is a great model for Colorado and should increase in many parts of the state. Aspen was 100% hydro until 1957! It is indeed hydro availability that helped the Aspen municipal Utility reach 100% renewable energy already.
If your point is that 100% renewable isn’t realistic today except for special cases like Aspen, you are generally correct. It is POSSIBLE today, but projections for when it actually makes sense universally rely on future efficiency enhancements to renewable production, storage, and transmission technology that track with the rate of improvements over the last decade.
You make some fair points about the Aspen example and as a realist I certainly appreciate the pushback. I don’t think my policy paper suggests in any way that I think Aspen’s exact model today should be the entire state’s model, and anyone reading it that way is being disingenuous.
I hope this means you are volunteering to proofread and fact check my future energy policy announcements?
Fossil Fuels Are Base of Electric Grid
Regarding “related side points 1 and 2”:
1) If the utility is getting its electricity from anywhere other than its own power plants, it cannot claim the electricity is coming from only renewable sources. That electricity comes to them from the grid, and all electrons on the grid are fungible. They don’t differentiate themselves based on what got them moving. It’s not like Aspen can plug an extension cord into someone else’s windmill.
They can only make the claim about renewable sources by pretending to buy only the electrons that were put in motion by the sun or wind. In effect, they are buying renewable “indulgences”.
2) Nuclear and coal are both base-demand sources. As variable sources increase (if we build more wind and solar plants) base demand sources get pushed out, and more natural gas plants must be built to supplement the variability.
That’s like buying every new car that comes along, just because it’s cool, and keeping your old cars but not driving them, but paying for maintenance, registration, and insurance. That’s great if you’ve got as much money as Polis. But I ain’t got that much, and don’t want to pay for new power plants that we don’t need.
We should only build new power plants when demand for electricity outstrips our current capacity, or when the cost of maintaining older power plants exceeds the cost of building new power plants.
Coal electricity generation is still a much larger industry than renewable, and has many more resources to pour into further cleaning emissions. All things considered, it is more environmentally friendly than wind or solar.
Thank you, Ari, for pushing back on Polis. I’ve not met him, but I’m certain he is smart enough to have known in advance that he was disingenuous with his claims about Aspen. It doesn’t take much research to disprove his claims, and as a man who claims to be the right guy to direct energy policy (the Fatal Conceit, as Hayek would call it) he should demonstrate that fact.
I would prefer that he stay in Congress where he is only one disingenuous voice out of 535, and he can do less harm.
Brian Vande Krol