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How this inland state can offers pointers to other states about moving forward in the energy transition

 

In May, the Western Conference of Public Service Commissioners held a conference in Vail. Among the speakers was Erin Overturf, director of clean energy for Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates. She agreed to reprise her comments for Big Pivots.

 

by Erin Overturf

Western Resource Advocates

Readers of Big Pivots already have a window into the evolution of the energy transition in Colorado. It’s a fascinating story, involving technological innovation, billions of dollars of investment, and the establishment of entirely new ways of doing and thinking.

Western Resource Advocates, the organization where I work, is a regional nonprofit fighting climate change and its impacts in the Interior West. Our Clean Energy work is focused on state-level policy as a tool to reduce emissions from electricity generation, build the regional, flexible grid we’ll need to decarbonize the power sector cost-effectively, and utilize clean electricity as an alternative to fossil fuel reliance in other sectors of the economy like transportation and home heating.

WRA has a team of policy experts and attorneys working on the ground to shape energy policy in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah – giving us a unique perspective on the energy transition in the West.

I recently had the opportunity to share this perspective at a meeting of the Western Conference of Public Service Commissioners and I am happy to share a version of those remarks with Big Pivots.

The story of the energy transition has so many intellectually engrossing nooks and crannies that it can be easy to lose the forest for the trees. It is important to remember why we’re investing so much time, effort, and money into this transition. It’s because the status quo fossil fuel-dependent energy system poses an existential threat to our health, our economy, and this beautiful place we call home. And the measure of our success is whether we are reducing emissions at the pace and scale necessary to protect those things we value most.

The science is clear: human activities that emit greenhouse gas pollutants – including carbon dioxide and methane – are “unequivocally” driving climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the likely range of total human-caused global surface temperature increase from 1850–1900 to 2010–2019 was 1.07°C . In order to avoid the most devastating economic, agricultural, and health impacts of climate change we need to meet the Paris Climate Agreement standard to “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”

Climate change is a cumulative emissions problem, caused by the buildup of primarily carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. This means that every ton of greenhouse gas pollution avoided today is a gift to our future selves. It also means that the pace of the transition is critical to its overall success.

When we develop our organizational priorities at WRA, our north star is always the science and the physical realities of the climate system. To have a shot at avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, we must reduce economy-wide emissions of climate pollution at least 50% by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. This is consistent with the United States’ Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Climate Agreement, which commits to achieving economy-wide reductions of 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030. Various modeling efforts have worked to identify and quantify the policies and emission reductions needed across the country to achieve the U.S. NDC.

Surveying these analyses, several findings are consistent, including the importance of rapidly reducing emissions from the power sector. A meta-analysis developed by researchers at the Electric Power Research Institute, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and other institutions surveyed six such modelling efforts and found that across all models, power sector emissions need to decline, on average, 84% below 2005 levels by 2030. Another notable consistency across these various modelling efforts is a rapid shift away from coal-fired generation. Across the different models, coal generation declines by 90% to 100% by 2030.

Because of the way we center science in our policy development, WRA is focused on what I call “getting tons” – locking in permanent reductions in GHG emissions. At the same time, it must be recognized that some tons have more co-benefits than others. Some are more cost-effective or have higher cost savings. Some result in greater reductions in other co-pollutants like NOx and particulate matter that harm our health and our quality of life. Some offer a more plausible pathway to long-term, economy-wide decarbonization. And emissions reduction policies provide more support to local communities who are impacted by the energy transition. Thus, the goal is to get as many tons as quickly as possible and to do it in a way that maximizes these co-benefits.

From my vantage point, what’s most exciting about this moment in the energy transition is that I know we can do it. Utilities like Xcel Energy in Colorado are showing how to secure deep decarbonization in this decade while retaining the service we all rely on. So, it’s possible. But actually doing it requires thorough planning and alignment of actions with those plans.

Part of the reason Colorado utilities are such leaders in this space is because Colorado has developed a policy environment that is largely aligned with achieving the scale and pace of emissions reductions we need from the power sector. Colorado has established itself as an innovative leader in state policy. Other states and federal policymakers often look to Colorado as a model.

Erin Overturf

Erin Overturf

The foundation of Colorado’s success is the state’s robust, transparent resource planning process, particularly how that process guides actual concrete resource procurement decisions, productively involves stakeholders, and harnesses the power of competitive markets. In addition, a series of legislative changes over the past five years have established science-aligned, economy-wide greenhouse gas emission goals and requirements for utilities to develop plans to achieve deep decarbonization in this decade.

Other states can learn from Colorado’s efforts to establish and perform planning processes that are aligned with climate science and are transparent and participatory. Regulators must then ensure utility actions align with those plans, while also creating opportunities to regularly tap the market for new technologies and solutions.

Surveying the landscape, I see reasons for significant optimism. And there are also reasons for concern.

First, even in Colorado and other states that are taking ambitious near-term actions to reduce emissions there is a need to ensure we are always keeping our eyes on the horizon. We must make incremental progress today while also ensuring we have a viable pathway to complete decarbonization by mid-century. The decisions we make today create path dependencies and sunk costs. To make this transition as cost-effectively as possible, we need to avoid making big investments now to secure incremental GHG reductions that do not have a viable, plausible pathway to full decarbonization.

Second, we’ve already locked in a significant amount of warming with our historic emissions. We’re already feeling the impacts of climate change in our lives — and in our energy system. Increased wildfire liability poses significant financial risks to utilities and threatens the ability to provide affordable service. Extreme heat drives up demand for electricity during periods of grid stress and negatively impacts generation and transmission equipment. Prolonged and extreme drought threaten the reliability of our hydroelectric resources.

We’re at a stage where we must do the very challenging work of adaptation while simultaneously reducing emissions as quickly as we can to mitigate further harm. The impacts of climate change itself threaten utilities’ ability to provide affordable and reliable service. The longer we wait to solve this problem, the more daunting those challenges become.

And finally, not enough states are developing the regulatory and legal infrastructure necessary to deliver the energy transition at the scale and pace the climate science demands. In Arizona, more than eight in 10 voters believe that both climate change and air pollution are serious problems and yet state law explicitly prohibits any regulation of greenhouse gas pollution. Arizona utilities like Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project are lagging behind a science-aligned emission reduction trajectory.

In Utah, new legislation was passed in 2024 aimed at slowing the transition away from emissions caused by intensive coal-fired generation. Shortly after the legislative session, PacifiCorp – which serves electric customers in Utah as Rocky Mountain Power – announced its intention to drastically scale back near-term renewable acquisitions and extend the lives of the Hunter and Huntington coal plants in Utah. State policy that prolongs our dependence on fossil fuels results in higher utility costs, poor air quality that harms our health, and increases the risks of extreme weather events – like extreme heat, acute drought, and catastrophic wildfires – that threaten to upend our economy and create unsustainable levels of financial precarity for people, communities, and institutions.

So, what’s the view from here? We’ve packed our bags and we know where we’re going, even if we don’t know the exact path we’ll take. After all, we’re doing something that’s never been done before. We’ve made some important progress; summiting an early peak, we’ve been rewarded with a sense of accomplishment but also a clearer view of all that’s still to be done. And while it may be daunting, there’s no more important path we could be walking. We must continue to climb.

Allen Best
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