Colorado Has Tips On New Renewable Requirements

Renewable energy advocates hope Congress will pass a law this year requiring that a percentage of the nation's electricity come from environmentally friendly sources. Colorado was one of the first states to pass such a requirement; and those who worked on it have some advice for the feds.

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As members of Congress and the new administration work on developing renewable energy, they'll have a number of states to turn to for advice. More than half the states already require utilities to get a percentage of their electricity from renewable resources. NPR's Jeff Brady has five lessons learned from one state - Colorado.

JEFF BRADY: Even before he was director of the governor's energy office in Colorado, Tom Plant was a big fan of wind turbines and solar panels. As a state legislator, he tried to get his colleagues to pass a renewable energy requirement but failed. Plant was pleased when, in 2004, voters sidestepped the legislature and passed a law on their own.

TOM PLANT: The arguments that we heard against the amendment when it was being run are the same ones that we hear at the national level - it'll cost too much, you know, it'll disrupt our electrical supply, blah, blah, blah, all those sorts of things.

BRADY: The state's largest utility, Xcel Energy, let that opposition, but then something interesting happened. After the law passed, Xcel found it was meeting the 10-percent target well ahead of schedule. A few years later, the utility actually supported a bill doubling the requirement. That's lesson number one from Colorado. Renewable energy advocates say, the initial target should be pretty aggressive, because it's likely utilities will find a way to meet it.

Now, we're on to lesson two. The requirement should be somewhat flexible. This is especially important to Frank Prager, he's Xcel Energy's vice president of Environmental Policy. He says, a utility needs to find ways to use renewable sources of energy and still be profitable, all the while keeping rates reasonable. Prager says, flexibility will be very important in the Southeast, where they don't have as many renewable energy options as Colorado.

FRANK PRAGER: We're situated in a really great part of the nation for purposes of wind, for example, because we've got the best wind in the nation right in our backyard. It's sort of wind alley across our entire system.

BRADY: Xcel has become the nation's largest wind energy provider in the last few years, and for that reason, Prager has another piece of advice for policy makers.

PRAGER: It's going to be very important - and from our perspective, this is extremely important - to make sure that you get credit for what you've already done.

BRADY: Now, this is a sticking point between utilities and renewable energy advocates. But Prager says, early adopters, like Xcel, shouldn't be penalized for being ahead of the curve. Issues like that and whether hydropower dams should be considered renewable resources likely will get plenty of debate in Congress.

The original backers of Colorado's law have a fourth piece of advice. This is directed at their national colleagues - bring new allies to the negotiating table. They found it valuable to woo the business community. Keith Hay with Environment Colorado says, his group commissioned reports touting the economic benefits of renewable energy.

KEITH HAY: We can take those kind of reports and say to people, look, we get the environmental benefits. That's important to us. But here's what you care about, and here's the benefit to you on those grounds. That's a really significant step that we as the environmental community here in Colorado took, and at the national level, it's absolutely a step we'll need to take.

BRADY: Finally, there's an issue that everyone interviewed for this story agrees on, but it's almost always an afterthought - electricity transmission. Most of the poles and wires in the U.S. today were built to service traditional power plants, not the vast open spaces where wind and solar energy are abundant. If renewable energy is going to work in the U.S., advocates say, you need a way to get it from the source to where people live. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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