Some Colorado legislators hope to bring strength in numbers to give Colorado an energy boost.
The plan is to do so by creating a means to build a network of electrical transmission lines throughout the state. Proponents say this would ensure electrical transmission reliability with the flexibility of linking to neighboring state’s grids.
But it’s been met so far with mixed reviews. The state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, stands firmly against it as a solution looking for a problem, while smaller utilities see it as a way to keep promises of affordably transmitting renewable power to meet consumer expectations.
Sens. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, and Don Coram, R-Montrose, are backing Senate Bill 72, which would create the Colorado Electric Transmission Authority (CETA), and require state utilities to join a regional transmission organization that would tie utilities to a regional transmission system.
Doing so would help fill in power gaps throughout Colorado where there is no means to transmit growing amounts of renewable energy, and it will afford the state a much more reliable and cost-effective means to building new transmission lines – not to mention bring online new construction jobs as transmission lines are built out.
The bill is predicated on the idea that Colorado’s electricity transmission system is behind the times, and it will suffer a fate similar to that of Texas if a significant event challenged the power system. Millions in Texas were left without power for days in February after an ice storm shut down utilities, with no means to transmit power from neighboring states.
Colorado’s power grid is controlled by electric utilities throughout the state, but there is little to no electrical transmission interwoven with our neighboring states. Much like Texas, Colorado’s grid doesn’t branch beyond state borders.
“We have a very balkanized grid which leads to inefficiencies, and it’s difficult to move power around the region,” Hansen said in presenting the bill to committee. “This bill, along with working with neighboring states, can make a huge difference in fixing a bifurcated and broken up transmission grid in the West.
“When it’s sunny in Arizona, we can import the power, and when it’s windy in Colorado we can export the power,” he said. “All sides gain. That is the piece that is really missing.”
The bill met its first test in the Senate Transportation and Energy committee on March 16, where the panel voted 5-1 to move the bill to the Senate Appropriations Committee after more than 40 people testified for and against the bill.
The bill assumes the CETA will begin this year or next, and all the state’s electric utilities will join a Regional Transmission Organization (RTO) by 2030, unless they receive a waiver by the Public Utilities Commission. The CETA would be authorized to choose a transmission operator to finance, plan, acquire, maintain and operate eligible electric transmission and interconnected storage facilities.
The authority, as originally devised in the bill, would be able to:
- issue tax-exempt revenue bonds
- identify and establish intrastate electric transmission corridors
- exercise the power of eminent domain to acquire eligible facilities
- and collect payments of reasonable rates, fees, interest or other charges from persons using eligible facilities.
The authority would be governed by a seven-member board of directors appointed to by the Governor, the Director of the Colorado Energy Office, and two representatives each chosen by the House and the Senate. The bill also creates a bonding fund to collect revenue from fees and charges, bond proceeds, interest payments on loans and any other investments in the fund.
In all, creating the authority would cost the state $500,000 this year and a little more than $639,000 in personnel in its first year of operation.
But that may just be the beginning. Francis Koncilja, a Denver lawyer and a former member of the Public Utilities Commission, which oversees Colorado’s utilities, warned, “the devil is in the details.”
“The real question is how much is it going to cost to build, and is joining an RTO going to benefit the citizens of Colorado?” Koncilja testified before the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee. “The jury is out on that and it is premature to order utilities to join an RTO at this time. … RTOs are complex and all have had serious problems in delivering electricity in the last several years.”
Koncilja said the PUC is in the middle of a $500,000 study to determine whether joining an RTO would be a good move for Colorado utilities. Passing SB72 would render that study moot, she intimated.
Regardless, the bill’s fate may rest on the need for increased transmission lines across state lines to make use of all power generated in Colorado, and finding the best prices from other states to fill power generation gaps.
Larger utilities report the bill would create a layer of bureaucracy and regulation into what they do every day. Xcel Energy just announced a $1.7 billion plan to build additional power lines throughout eastern Colorado, and said it already is functioning as the bill has laid out.
“To this day after much stakeholder engagement, we are still unclear to what specific problem this legislation is trying to solve,” Xcel Colorado President Alice Jackson testified. “… Xcel has joined the Western Energy Imbalance Market … and we do exchange power. We are collectively tackling resource adequacy and regional reliability. This legislation isn’t needed for us to be successful and could prevent us from achieving our goals in the most efficient ways for our customers.”
Smaller utility cooperatives, like the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association in Fort Collins, have been advocating for the creation of a “robust Regional Transmission Organization” for years.
“It makes the grid resilient by allowing for the maximization of an integrated grid to draw on all available resources across a much larger geographical footprint to serve our needs,” PVREA President & CEO Jeff Wadsworth wrote to this stakeholders in late February.
His organization will be watching this legislation with interest, said Vice President Amy Rosier.
In a statement provided to Empowering Colorado, Rosier wrote: “We greatly appreciate the stakeholder process and expect this bill to go through changes as it makes its way through the larger legislative process. We will continue to monitor any changes, but what matters most is that when the legislative process is complete, we have a robust and functional regional RTO. This is crucial to our ability to meet our goal of providing our members with 80 percent renewable energy by 2030.”
The bill was met with strong backing from other energy cooperatives, environmental, and renewable energy groups, as a way to pool resources and use renewable power being generated in Colorado today without a transmission source or a place to send electricity out of state.
“It does bring Colorado into a new era,” said Professor KK DuVivier of the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver, during the committee testimony. “Colorado has been an electricity island and we have seen the Colorado utilities stand in the way of working with other states …. There is a lot in Colorado that’s not being appreciated and I haven’t heard anyone else mention the curtailment of the wind power that Xcel has been generating. The PUC staff estimated that over 950,000 megawatts of wind energy power was not going to be used by Xcel in 2021, and that’s because we’re not connected to other utilities that could use that wind.”
The bill already has been amended a few times to lessen its power of eminent domain and create parity for labor standards across transmission projects across the state.
More amendments have been proposed, as well.
About the author: Sharon Dunn worked as a professional journalist for 25 years before leaving the Greeley Tribune in 2018 to finish her masters degree in communications management from the University of Denver. She now works as a communications specialist for the City of Greeley and writes in her spare time.