Monday, February 19, 2007

The Sun, the Earth, and Pond Scum -- Colorado Renewables

Every time I check the feeds lately, it seems like there's news about individual US states ramping up their renewable energy efforts. Colorado might have a leg up to begin with, since the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is located there. They've also got the advantage (thought they're not the only state) of a newly-inaugurated governor who made energy issues a centerpiece of his campaign (and Tom Gray can feel free to tell me I was wrong again...). So, I wasn't too surprised to come across several pieces of interesting news from the Centennial State. First, from Renewable Energy Access, news that utility company Xcel Energy is using a solar energy purchase agreement to meet its renewable obligations:
The contract, the first of its kind in Colorado under the new renewable energy standards, will provide for the development of an 8-megawatt (MW) solar photovoltaic electric generation facility in Alamosa. Xcel Energy will purchase the electricity generated by the plant to help it meet the solar requirements of the renewable energy standards adopted by Colorado voters in 2004.

The agreement calls for the facility to be in operation by Dec. 31, 2007 in order for Xcel Energy to start generating solar renewable energy credits as soon as possible. It will also ensure that the developer, SunE Alamosa1, LLC, can take advantage of a 30 percent federal investment tax credit available for non-utility solar facilities placed into service before Jan. 1, 2008, which will benefit Colorado ratepayers.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if this becomes a model for utilities across the country. They can meet their obligations under state renewable portfolio standards while avoiding the large investment necessary to create generation facilities. And they've likely agreed to a stable rate with SunE Alamosa that could end up saving the company, and ratepayers, a ton of money in the long term.

Solar power's just the beginning, though. In Boulder, startup firm Solix Biofuels Inc. is partnering with Colorado State University to commercialize technology for turning algae into biodiesel. From the Cherry Creek News:
“We’re facing two global challenges: depletion of our petroleum reserves and a buildup of greenhouse gases,” said Bryan Willson, director of Colorado State’s Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, which is helping Colorado State achieve its goal to lead the nation in developing and commercializing environmentally sustainable solutions to global problems. “This process harnesses photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide and energy captured from the sun into an economical petroleum substitute.”

“Algae are the fastest growing organisms on the planet, and can produce 100 times more oil per acre than conventional soil-tilled crops that are now being grown for biofuel use,” said Solix founder Jim Sears.
Along with biofuels created from biomass, development of this technology seems very promising, and very preferable to using food crops. Not only does it avoid setting up a conflict in the marketplace between buyers of food and buyers of fuel, but it also requires a lot less land, and CO2 emissions from existing power plants can feed the process.

Finally, according to the same article, the state's Department of Energy is discovering that Colorado is rich in another renewable energy source: geothermal energy:

The Colorado Geological Survey has identified several areas of the state where geothermal energy may be abundant. These locations include areas near Mt. Princeton outside of Buena Vista, the San Juan mountains near Ouray and Rico, and areas of the San Luis Valley near Trinidad.

“Geothermal energy presents an opportunity to expand renewable resources in Colorado that is often overlooked. This opportunity fits perfectly with Governor Ritter’s promise to add a full mix of renewable energies for our state,” said Tom Plant, OEMC director, while delivering the conference opening address. “Our hope is to have geothermal energy take a seat at Colorado’s renewable energy table alongside solar and wind power.”
All of these are promising developments. More importantly, I think, they show an approach to renewable development that needs to be emulated: exploration of a diversity of sources. If I worry about anything with the new enthusiasm for renewables, it's the temptation to put all of our eggs in one basket -- just think of all the attention ethanol got last year. Colorado may prove itself a model, not just for developing renewables, but for showing others how to start the process.

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