Why doesn’t Colorado treat hydroelectricity like other “renewable” energy resources?

Colorado is having trouble defining hydroelectricity. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers it to be a renewable resource, and the Colorado Energy Office calculates hydroelectric power’s emission rate as equal to wind and solar. Despite these two distinctions, Colorado’s renewable energy standard defines hydroelectricity as renewable only if the generating facility is newly constructed with a capacity of ten megawatts or less, or constructed before January 2005 with a capacity of thirty megawatts or less.

Colorado has 1169 megawatts (MW) of existing hydroelectric capacity. Of that total, 82 percent is generated at facilities with a capacity over 30 MW—meaning it is not “renewable” unless the facility was built in the past eight years. Unfortunately, most facilities do not meet this requirement

According to the most recently released figures, renewables other than hydro produce 9.8 percent of the total net summer electricity capacity. If the total 1169 MW of existing hydro capacity were considered renewable, hydroelectricity would contribute another 8.5 percent of capacity. Instead, only 4.8 percent of hydroelectric power is considered renewable.

Under the current format Colorado will have to fill renewable portfolio standards largely without the help of hydroelectric generation. Unfortunately, this is increasing the costs of the renewable portfolio standard.

At 11.06 cents per kilowatt-hour, Colorado ranked 21nd highest nationally in average residential electricity rates according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That may not sound too bad, except that the state is well above the average for all Mountain West states. In fact, Colorado has the second highest rates in the Mountain West, just behind Nevada, which actually saw a decrease last year in its residential electric rates.

Furthermore, Colorado has higher rates than any of its neighboring states.  Outside of the East Coast, the only states with higher rates than Colorado are Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, California, Alaska and Hawaii.

As was proved in the 2012 snapshot of Colorado’s new energy economy, these high prices are due largely to lawmakers using the RPS to support the wind and solar industries. In 2012 alone Xcel Energy customers paid an extra $343 million for what ended up being mostly surplus electricity.

If high prices are the intent of Colorado’s energy policy, expect those figures to get much worse in the coming years as the state moves closer to the legislative mandate of 30 percent renewable portfolio standard, which is heavily tilted toward wind. However, if self-described environmentalists and the Colorado Energy Office truly care about the environment and economic sustainability then they should embrace hydroelectric power regardless of when it was built, but don’t hold your breath waiting.

Brandon Ratterman is an intern with the Energy Policy Center at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.   This op-ed originally appeared in the Institute’s energy blog.



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