Governor Polis has made the promise of “100 percent renewable energy by 2040” a fixture of his tenure in office. He campaigned on the pledge, released a “roadmap” designed to shepherd the state toward it in his first year in office, and he routinely invokes the goal at every opportunity when publicly discussing environmental policy.
Yet his administration has been noticeably tight-lipped about what such a transition would cost, save for the occasional assurance it will “save you money,” and whether it would even be feasible without seriously undermining the reliability of the electric grid.
A new report from the Independence Institute and Center of the American Experiment helps explain why the Governor has been so reluctant on that front. The report modeled the cost of the Governor’s goal, which we have dubbed the “Polis Plan,” and found that meeting it could cost Coloradans up to $318.8 billion through 2050.
This is the equivalent of each Colorado electricity customer—households, commercial businesses, and industrial users—paying an additional $3,540 annually through 2050. Colorado households alone would expect to pay an average of an additional $1,800 per year on their electricity bills.
Moreover, the report also found Colorado would experience 25 hours of blackouts spread across three separate events in January and early February 2040 if electricity demand and wind and solar output are the same as in 2021.
The plan’s high price tag and reliability risks directly result from a needlessly myopic view of how to address climate change while powering the state. A “100 percent renewable” standard is not synonymous with a “100 percent clean” or “carbon-free” standard. Instead, the former definitionally excludes the country’s current single-largest source of zero-carbon electricity generation: nuclear energy. It also excludes more novel yet promising technologies like carbon capture attached to existing fossil fuel plants.
This distinction matters because renewables like wind and solar are intermittent resources—meaning their output is entirely dependent on favorable weather conditions—while clean resources like nuclear and natural gas with carbon capture are dispatchable, meaning they can be relied upon to supply power whenever it is needed, for as long as it is needed.
Maintaining a functioning grid that eschews dispatchable resources in favor of intermittent renewables requires a substantial overbuilding of wind and solar capacity to account for their sporadic output. It also necessitates a serious build-up of expensive battery storage to help keep the grid afloat when the wind is not blowing, and the sun isn’t shining. The costs of overbuilding and installing mass quantities of battery backup rise considerably over time.
Consumers are understandably quite sensitive to increases in energy costs, which tend to disproportionately impact lower-income households who are less able to absorb shocks to their monthly budgets. And that goes double for cost increases driven by ideological concerns.
The Colorado legislature felt compelled to assemble a crisis committee to address rising energy bills over an acute 52% increase last December. Imagine the backlash they would invite with a sustained 150% increase over current levels for the next few decades. Couple that with the very real possibility of rolling blackouts due to overdependence on intermittent energy sources, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Fortunately, it is not all bad news. Our report found that Colorado could potentially meet Polis’ electric-sector decarbonization goals on the same timeline, without reliability issues and at just over a quarter of the cost, by transitioning the state’s generating assets to nuclear energy.
Even better, the public already appears to be on board with that strategy. Polling data shows that Coloradans prioritize affordability and reliability above all else in energy policy, and a strong majority, across ideological lines, support adding nuclear energy to Colorado’s energy mix to help meet the state’s decarbonization goals.
The only thing standing in the way is a Democratic majority at the state capitol, which has thus far mostly been obstinate in the face of good faith attempts to allow nuclear energy to compete with renewables for a place in the state’s energy future.
We’ll see how long that lasts as the costs continue to pile up, and the fragility of the electric grid only increases.
Affordable and reliable access to energy is the bedrock of any prosperous society. Coloradans should not be forced to sacrifice on either of those fronts for the sake of ideological preferences in energy policy.
Jake Fogleman is an energy policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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