Northwest politicians lobby for more discussion of coal energy talks

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— The two Republicans who represent Northwest Colorado in the state Legislature say the region mostly is being left out of the conversations about renewable energy that have dominated this year's general assembly.

"I don't have a problem with pursuing renewables, but I think that clean coal technology is an avenue that we can't turn our back on either," said Rep. Al White, R-Hayden. "It's left out of the mix and given our coal resources, I think that's irresponsible. Obviously, it's not renewable but it's still a huge resource."

Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, agreed everything should be on the table when it comes to supplying the state and nation with reliable electricity and heat.

"When looking at the projections for what's needed, all the renewable (energy) won't even begin to match the demand of the increase alone," Taylor said. "There's no question we are going to have to use fossil fuels to meet the demand."

Colorado energy czar Tom Plant is keeping a close watch on the last of at least 18 bills related to developing Colorado's renewable energy resources that still are moving though the legislative process as the 2008 Legislature draws to a close.

The mandated adjournment is May 7, but the legislative sessions have ended early each of the past three years.

"The governor and the Legislature are very committed to trying to take down any barriers that we have to energy efficiency and renewable energy development," said Plant, whose official title is director of the Governor's Energy Office.

Gov. Bill Ritter already has signed at least five of the measures aimed at furthering his "new energy economy" and several more have reached his desk. They include the controversial net metering bill, which requires rural electric cooperatives to give consumers credit for up to 25 kilowatt hours of customer-generated wind or solar energy.

"Net metering will help provide incentives for people to put renewable energy systems on their homes and business," Plant said.

Other signed bills clarify in statute the roles of Plant's office and the Colorado Renewable Energy Authority in awarding grants and making expenditures on the state's behalf and increase investment in the research and development of biofuels.

A more controversial measure that enhances the role of the Public Utilities Commission in considering alternative energy sources at rate hearings is awaiting Senate debate. Any differences from the version that passed the House will have to be resolved before House Bill 1227 can be sent to the governor.

"The PUC bill went way beyond the traditional role of the PUC," said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. "The PUC is now going to prioritize renewable energy that will lead to penalizing traditional power plants that inevitably will lead to higher costs for all Coloradans."

McNulty said the PUC bill also "attacked the role of the Office of Consumer Council whose only job was to look out for the consumer."

"Now they have to worry about the environment, which is an appropriate role for the Department of Health or the Department of Natural Resources," McNulty said. "It is not an appropriate role for the Office on Consumer Council who is there to make sure the consumer does not get gouged by the regulated monopoly."

White, who is one of two Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee, said he would support more legislative oversight of all the different agencies that are involved promoting renewable energy.

"There's the clean energy fund, a number of grants from gaming revenue, the operational account of the severance tax and now money from a carbon tax license plate is going to the Clean Energy Fund," White said. "I'm on the JBC, and I'm even confused."

White said Plant's office has been "flying under the radar in a significant fashion" with several employees who are not on the state payroll.

"They've been funded with some federal funds that are running out in the near future," White said. "There had been a huge growth in that office without legislative recognition."

Plant said, however, that the Ritter Administration has been more transparent than the prior administration in running the office of energy management, now called the GEO.

"When I was on the JBC, we tried to get that information, and there was very much secrecy around all that stuff," said Plant, a former state representative from Boulder County.

Among other bills awaiting Ritter's signature are measures to expand the type of projects that can be financed from the clean energy fund, prevent municipalities and counties from charging excessive fees for solar system building permits; and eliminate some of the restrictions that local governments impose on energy efficiency structures.

Still needing to be finalized are bills asking the PUC to consider the costs and benefits of renewable energy resources (HB 1164); create a low-interest loan program for homeowners to increase use of alternative energy; and revise the taxation of property that houses renewable energy systems.

Western Slope Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, said much of this year's legislative agenda is being driven by last summer's work by a committee that mapped Colorado potential for "utility scale" generation of election from renewable energy sources.

"We are open for business when it comes the renewable generation," said Schwartz, who is pushing for more PUC involvement in alternative energy production. HB 1164 "informs the PUC that we feel we have a valuable resource that should be considered when they are looking at new energy generation. We can't miss this."

Plant said the state's next big challenge is finding a way to pay for the transmission lines to "high-rate renewable energy areas" such as the wind turbines in northeast Colorado and the solar generating facilities in the San Luis Valley.

"We need to build transmission to places where production is if we are going to fully realize all the renewable capacity that we have in this state," Plant said.

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