Get Big Pivots

It’s time to build the damn train! A peek at rail and other energy- and climate-related legislation at the Colorado Capitol


by Allen Best

“We have a mid-20th century way of doing things as we hurtle through the 21st century.”

That’s how Mike Kruger, president of Colorado Solar and Storage, describes the situation that has spawned a bill almost certain to be introduced into the Colorado General Assembly in coming days that might dramatically rearrange how Xcel Energy goes about its distribution system planning.

The bill has a fancy, forward-looking title: Powering Up Colorado.

“Right now Xcel’s system is not pleasing anybody,” says Kruger. “I think internally they are struggling as well.”

As we expand the use of electricity, we need upgrades in how we distribute electricity at the neighborhood levels. Those costly upgrades can include upgraded transformers and other equipment. Costs can run from $6,000 to $10,000. This can discourage lower income residents from electrifying.

Efficiency is also an issue. Instead of one-off upgrades, COSSA wants to see more efficient methodologies used for broad, neighborhood-scale upgrades that will be needed as we expand the use of electricity almost everywhere.

That will take money, but the money now being spent is being done so in neither an equitable nor efficient way, says Kruger.

PUC commissioners have also talked about the need to get a handle on distribution system planning.

Going back to the 1950s, ours was a world premised on large amounts of fossil fuels. Electricity flowed only one direction, from central power plants to consumers.

Now, electricity can flow both ways, including from solar rooftops. Car and truck batteries can be used to power homes. Some homes have Tesla batteries. We’re moving to electrify both transportation and buildings.

There’s much talk about virtual power plants.  A virtual power plant, as defined by the Rocky Mountain Institute, is comprised

of hundreds or thousands of households and businesses that offer the latent potential of their thermostats, electric vehicles (EVs), appliances, batteries, and solar arrays to support the grid. These devices can be flexibly charged, discharged, or managed to meet grid needs. When these devices are aggregated and coordinated, they can provide many of the same energy services (capacity, energy, ancillary services) as a traditional power plant.

Using the old model, the general task in figuring out how to pay for expansion of electrical wires in neighborhoods was that those creating the need for upgrades should have to pay for the upgrade.

It made sense, didn’t it?

But here’s the rub. The person who upgrades now and needs the upgrade can be forced to pay the full cost. That can kill the economics of a new solar roof. The solar industry and allies see need for a fundamental rethink.

The Colroado solar Energy ASsociation and legislative allies wil be pushing for new rules governing investments in neighborhood-scale electrical infrastrucgture, including upgraded transformers, to amke way for the era taht might be called that of virtual power plants. Top, Senate PResident Steve Fenberg supports thate legislation but also insists it's time to move forrward on expanded rail along the Front Range. Phgotos/Allen Best

The Colorado Solar and Storage Associaton and legislative allies will be pushing for new rules governing investments in neighborhood-scale electrical infrastructure, including upgraded transformers, to make way for the era that might be called that of virtual power plants. Top: Senate President Steve Fenberg supports the legislation and also insists it’s time to move forward on expanded rail along the Front Range. Photo/Allen Best

To illustrate the problem, Kruger cites a Golden neighborhood, where homes were built in the 1970s and early 1980s. Few felt the need for air conditioning. Almost nobody had a computer. “The biggest load was incandescent lights.”

Now we have roof-top solar — and after the third or fourth roof installation, a new transformer is needed.

Another example Kruger cites comes from the Montbello neighborhood of northeast Denver. Abutting the former airport named Stapleton, it was lower income, and residents there certainly had less need for higher performance neighborhood transformers.

“Lower-income individuals don’t have $6,000 to $10,000 floating around for distribution upgrades. That is part of the system we’re addressing. We don’t want to leave our low-income individuals behind in Colorado’s energy transition.”

A third example comes from downtown Denver. The city is driving building owners to electrify and replace natural gas. Building owners have been pushing back because of the high cost of electrical upgrades, in some cases running to the millions of dollars.

But returning to the residential neighborhoods, the cost of upgraded transformer capacity can discourage residents who want to buy electric vehicles, add solar, or electrify their homes. “Those neighborhoods can see two or three installs (of solar panels) and that’s it.”

That creates an inequity, says Kruger. Somebody in an affluent neighborhood, say Cherry Creek, can more easily afford the cost of paying for a new transformer than somebody of lesser income. Will they be stuck using natural gas — which is likely to become more expensive as systems have fewer natural gas customers — because of the cost of the electrical upgrade?

A year ago, he says, solar installers were complaining about the inability of Xcel to get systems connected in a timely matter. “Part of the issue was directly related to the grid. “

The answer, he says, is more thoughtful distribution system planning, and this bill — it’s being carried by at least two of the most savvy legislators as regards energy bills, Sen. Chris Hansen and Senate President Steve Fenberg — would force Xcel to revamp how it goes about distribution planning.

The bill likely would also apply to Black Hills Energy, but Kruger says the situation with Xcel triggered the still-being-shaped legislation. “We don’t have the same problems with other utilities. We have not seen the same problem of somebody trying to electrify their building and being told it will be two years before they can do it. A year ago it was a six-month wait for a very simple interconnect.”

Working with COSSA in drafting the bill have been the Colorado Energy Office, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and others.  He said he believes proponents have the support of Xcel because it takes into account their concerns.

Green Latinos also has a voice in the proceedings. Ean Tafoya, the Colorado state director, said they want to be sure additional community benefits can be folded into the system planning such as might occur with a new electrical substation.


State Sen. President Steve Fenberg, at a legislative town hall in Boulder on Sunday, described the bill as being “about making big investments in distribution systems,” but couched it a contrast with major investments by utilities.

“You don’t always have to invest in big generation or big transmission. You can actually use the system you have more efficiently and better, smarter. This is one of the big, big energy bills this year.”

Colorado has done much in the past two decades beginning with the voter-initiated amendment in 2004 that created the 10% renewable energy mandate, following by many other steps forward. Now, other states, having learned from Colorado, have surpassed Colorado.

“We basically invented community solar gardens,” he said. “We’ve done a lot, but I would say in the last couple of years, in many ways, states have learned from us and they have well surpassed what we’re doing.”

This year, he said, legislators are taking stock of past achievements but looking how to move ahead.

“It’s great that Xcel Energy has invested more in renewables, but we also know there are probably in many circumstances cheaper and more appropriate ways to get to some of these goals” than huge investments by utility companies, Fenberg said. When the utilities make the investments, he added, consumers pay for them.”

The bill, he said, will potentially incentivize and encourage more distributed generation, battery deployments and virtual power plants, “and all these things that we couldn’t have really imagined would become the norm 10 or 20 years ago.”


Also on the legislative horizon:

Community solar gardens

This is an area where Colorado broke new ground in the nation – but has done relatively little planning. Kruger said that as of early January 110 megawatts of capacity had been built compared to the 425 megawatts awarded.

The idea of solar gardens was in part for low-income people to participate as well as those who live in places  —  think a condo or apartment house — where they cannot have rooftop solar of their own.

“Basically, right now, community solar is kind of at the whim of how much the big utilities want to do. They get tons of applications from developers to build lots of generation via community solar. And they take a small fraction of them, about a third. So far, there are a lot of companies out there that are like, we have financing. We will build community solar and they turn ’em down,” Fenberg explained in a brief interview with Big Pivots at the legislative town hall in Boulder.

A community solar garden near the Village at Five Parks in Arvada. Photo/Allen Best

“At the end of the day, it’s a way for more people to have access to renewable energy. And so it would require them to accept more of these applications and allow more capacity on the system for community solar. There’s a lot of consumer protection stuff in there too, because there’s a lot of door-to-door salesmen selling community solar subscriptions.”

In his previous comments at the town hall, Fenberg had also pointed to federal funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. The law requires “every community solar investment from now on has to be half or more specifically earmarked for low-income residents.”

The Community Coalition for Solar Access is said to be working this bill.


Can Colorado hit GHG goals?

Colorado is reported to be behind schedule on achieving its decarbonization goals. What will you do about it, one person asked the legislators. What will be your response?

State Rep. Judy Amabile jumped in quickly. I am bringing a bill that is about requiring providers to have a plan for getting to a 100% renewables by 2040,” she said. The bill would require utilities to file reports in 2035 “to make sure what what’s happening now doesn’t continue to happen.”


Environmental justice bills

A task force was assembled by legislative order and delegated the responsibility for drafting suggestions for how to execute policies and actions to improve environmental justice. That task force issued its report in 2023, and Tafoya, the chair, said he expects to see legislation. Legislators at the Boulder meeting concurred, but they did not specify exact legislation. They did acknowledge impacts from airports and from bad air quality that tend to affect lower-income neighborhoods most severely.

Tafoya said he expects to see long-term funding for the state’s new Office of Environmental Justice plus additional measures related to air quality. He also expects to see legislation authorizing in-depth analysis of environmental justice impacts, and he suspects the foci of those studies will be Pueblo and North Denver.


Heat pumps

Despite delivering incentives for heat pumps, bottlenecks exist “because a lot of the industry that installs HVAC systems doesn’t know about them,” said Fenberg at the Boulder meeting. “They’re not comfortable with them or they don’t believe they actually perform well in cold weather. I have a heat pump, and it was fine when we were at negative 10 degrees.”

He said the legislation being shaped would create standards so that if somebody were buying an air conditioner, they would have to get a heat-pump (that can also cool; it’s sometimes called a mini-split).

“So there’s a lot of things like that, like random areas of the climate world that we’re addressing, a lot of the big low-hanging fruit on the utility side. It’s not like we’re done by any means, but it’s in motion.”

Why should people in Longmont and Boulder have to wait until 2040 to be able to ride trains to Union Station, asks Senate President Steve Fenberg. The money is there to go forward with the work, he insists. Photo/Allen Best

It’s time to build the damn train

During the Boulder session, Fenberg was most animated on the subject of rail, particularly a desire to push RTD to build the rail line to Longmont (and Boulder).

“We need to think about what is the next generation of our transportation system. That means multimodal transit, overwhelmingly getting a lot of the dollars in the future,” he said. “And I think we need to build that damn train because people said yes. I can’t imagine we could go to the ballot and ask for revenue for transportation ever again until we build that train.”

Fenberg also talked about transit-oriented development, a key piece of this year’s land use (and climate) agenda.

Allen Best
Follow Me

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This