Get Big Pivots


Two energy bills got exactly nowhere, one proposing to boost nuclear energy and the second purporting to preserve energy freedom of choice. 



by Allen Best

Two bills tossed into the hopper that are best described as “statements” were quickly dispatched by Colorado legislative committees. Both were on party-line votes.

One bill killed by the Colorado House and Energy and Environment Committee would have preempted local jurisdictions from prohibiting fossil fuels in homes and other buildings.

Another bill, which was killed by the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee, proposed to define nuclear energy as “clean energy.”

The nuclear bill, SB23-079, was sponsored by Sen. Larry Liston, a Republican from Colorado Springs. He called the bill “symbiotic” and drew attention to the federal Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. That law delivers tax benefits both for existing nuclear power plants but also for a new generation of technology called small modular reactors.

Liston and the witnesses in support of the  bill described nuclear energy as safe. “It has a very admirable safety record in the United States,” he said.

In producing nearly 19% of all electricity in the United States, the technology produces only 2,900 metric tons of spent fuel a year, an amount that comprises less than half the volume of a regular-sized swimming pool, he said. The spent fuel is encased in concrete and steel.

Larry Liston

Larry Liston

In his statements, though, Liston did not mention the enormous cost overruns making new nuclear power plants uncompetitive. At some point, backers have pulled the plug.

Now comes the idea of small modular reactors. In going smaller but in bulk, components can be created factory like, reducing costs and making the electricity competitive.

Plans have been laid for one reactor in Wyoming at the site of a soon-to-be-closed coal plant at Kemmerer. The hope remains of that project coming on line by 2030. Another project is proposed nearby in Idaho.

“I believe if a small modular reactor in Wyoming proves to be successful, Colorado will take a very keen interest in developing small modular reactors in several locations, especially in northwest Colorado at the town of Craig,” said Liston.

Others suggested that the coal plants at Hayden and Pueblo could be turned into nuclear plants.

Why was this bill needed?

“It will never be built if we do not allow nuclear energy to be considered a form of clean energy in the state,” said Liston.

Liston also pointed to the need for dispatchable energy, electricity that can be generated without relying upon either local renewable generation or the transmission system capable of moving renewable energy around different parts of the country.

The committee produced a “design” of engineers (yes, that’s what a group of engineers is called—look it up). Most testified in support. One called nuclear the “biggest bang for the buck.”

Lynn Burning, of Denver, (those testifying are not required to spell their names, so this is just a guess) pointed out that the Bighorn Solar Project adjacent to the steel mill in Pueblo has a generating capacity of 300 megawatts, weather permitting, enough to power 60,500 homes. The panels cover 1,800 acres. Only 2,050 acres are needed in New York state for three nuclear plants that supply electricity for 3.8 million homes.

“We may not want nuclear power, but we need it,” she said.

Former state senator Greg Brophy suggested that nuclear will be needed to avoid times in the future such as occurred early one morning in late January. It got to 10 below, power demands rose—and the wind stopped blowing and, of course, the sun was not shining.

“If the goal is to be completely carbon-free by 2050, I don’t think you can do it without adding nuclear to our fleet of electrical generation,” said Brophy.

One or two engineers, however, did testify against. Richard Andrews, who said he had worked in the nuclear industry, pointed out that nuclear power plants were a first target of the 9/11 terrorists who then chose more symbolic targets about which we are all too well acquainted. Had they gone with their first plan, “an entire region of the country would have been made uninhabitable,” he said.

The bill failed on a party line vote. Sen. Cleave Simpson, who represents the San Luis Valley and southwestern Colorado, pointed out that renewable energy once was also out of the money. A professional engineer, Simpson also suggested some delight in having a proceeding with a prodigious presence of engineers.

Even among the five Democrats who voted no there were suggestions that the discussion was not entirely over. “The technology is getting better and will be part of net-zero,” said Kevin Priola. However, he cut to the quick with his observation that even if the bill was passed, it wouldn’t change anything.

In other words, this was a statement bill.

For the record, the Colorado Senate actually has a nuclear engineer among its ranks. Chris Hansen received his bachelor’s degree from Kansas State while tripping through academia on his way to a Ph.D. in resource economics from Oxford. See his observations in this piece from August 2022: “Hope for a nuclear future.”

Also see what Hal Harvey, a co-author of The Big Fix,” had to say in an interview with Big Pivots in December: “Can turning the corner on global warming really be this simple?”

My takeaway: We may need nuclear and the cost and disposal issues may be resolved appropriate to the risk, but this bill—as Sen. Priola said in explaining his no-vote—accomplished nothing. There’s a good argument to be made for nuclear, but the arguments haven’t been very sophisticated.

The previous week, the House committee heard what its sponsor described as a “preemptive bill.” HB23-1127, “Customer’s Right to Use Energy” would have barred local governments from enacting regulations that prohibit use of natural gas.

If legislators come and go, these bills now make annual appearance in the Legislature, always with the same result: They get defeated by a Democratic majority.

Many states have adopted such prohibitions. The actual local prohibitions on natural gas have largely been limited to California and Massachusetts, although recently joined by Eugene, Ore. And, in Colorado, by Crested Butte (although other towns and cities are talking about it).

Downtown Trinidad

Trinidad is the largest town in the Raton Basin, where copious quantities of methane have been harvested. Photo/Allen Best

This year’s sponsor was a freshman legislator, Rep. Ty Winter, a fourth-generation rancher from the Trinidad area. He represents seven counties and parts of two others in southeastern Colorado. He tried to make the argument that  the Front Range was imposing its values on rural Colorado and, in the process, imposing higher costs.

Winter suggested that rural residents who rely upon propane were being threatened by all-electric mandates. He also described electrical delivery to rural Colorado as iffy. He asserted that all-electric homes cost $10,500 to $11,800 more to build. And he also suggested that burning natural gas was an environmental good because methane, the core constituent, seeps from coal seams and into the atmosphere.

“If the gas isn’t pumped, it comes through coal seams and will go to the atmosphere,” he said. “I do think it needs to be talked about.”

He said he was “trying to meet in the middle about some of the climate goals that have come out of the state capitol.”

For backup, he had testimony from Nathan Nichols, president of the Colorado Propane Gas Association Board of Directors. “Propane in rural areas is cost effective,” he said, and “gets us near to the net-zero goal.”

Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Association, the industry group, talked about “clean burning gas” and talked about gains in reducing fugitive emissions and toxins associated with methane.

He also made the economic argument, asserting that it is “far more efficient to heat with natural gas than with electricity.” And homeowners, he said, might prefer to use a gas stove.

Committee members also heard from Corey Gains, who teaches physics, math and other subjects at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling. He said he drives a hybrid car and has solar panels on his house but also insisted that climate change is not an “immediate existential threat.” The more immediate threat he sees is the state “chipping away at our ability to have choices beyond what the Front Range essentially decides it wants us to have. If people want to have electricity in their homes, that’s fine. People should have the option of having other things in their homes.”


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most compelling testimony against the bill was that it takes away choice while professing to foster choice.

“When government interference is necessary, it must benefit the greater good,” said John Branham, of Golden, who has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a master’s degree, the latter from the Colorado School of Mines and has taught school for 22 years. ”This bill confuses me. It takes away local choice but does not contribute to the greater good of Colorado.”

The Colorado Municipal League’s Meghan MacKillop also testified against the bill. The CML consistently opposes pre-emption over municipal authority.

The most spirited clash of arguments was between two state representatives, both from Colorado Springs, but with a Grand Canyon-sized gulf between their viewpoints. Rep. Ken DeGraaf dismissed all-electrification goals as the stuff of “rainbows and unicorns” and said that Colorado is “chasing a goal that gets us nowhere.” That is a theme of those testifying on behalf of the bill, who pointed to Colorado’s very slender role in global greenhouse gas emissions.

Rep. Stephanie Vigil is also from Colorado Springs, but across the political aisle from DeGraaf. She said she had no problem if people in rural Colorado wanted to have energy choices, but she did not like this bill that would tell Colorado Springs what it must do. “We don’t have one-size-fits-all in Colorado,” she said.

Mike Weissman

Mike Weissman

Most touching may have been the comments of Rep. Mike Weissman, who represents Aurora and has been on the committee long enough to see some committee members come and go – including one rancher, who died while still relatively young, who was from the canyon country east of Trinidad. She represented that part of Colorado that this bill’s sponsor, Winter, now represents

Weissman said the bill painted with “too broad of a brush.” He said the fears articulated by the sponsor are not “going to happen in your counties anytime soon.”

He further talked about his travels around rural Colorado, his understanding of the value of propane, and that rural Colorado had different needs from urban Colorado. “I do think it’s incumbent on us who do not represent rural areas to listen, to get outside of our zone, and travel the state and educate ourselves,” he said.

Aside from the legislator from Colorado Springs, who argues that water vapor–which is a greenhouse gas— explains global warming, most of the arguments on these bills is couched in language that acknowledges climate change and human complicity.

Elements of this perceived rural-urban divide will get hashed out again on February 23 when the House Energy & Environmental Committee is scheduled to hear:

  • HB 23-01163, “Revoke Carbon Dioxide Status as a Pollutant,” a bill brought by DeGraaf;
  • HB23-1080, “Reliable Alternative Energy Sources,” which would require a feasibility study for use of small modular reactors. More interesting, it proposes to elevate the maximum nameplate capacity for “pumped hydroelectricity” as 400 megawatts to qualify as “recycled energy.” It’s currently 15 megawatts, according to the bill.

* HB23-1085, “Rural County and Municipality Energy Efficient Building Codes,” which would give rural communities a longer time to achieve energy efficient standards. This bill has bipartisan sponsors from the San Luis Valley.


Allen Best
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