Chris Hoffman: Coal is not the only problem


Go to the top of Flagstaff Mountain and look east. On most days you can’t see “all the way to Kansas” anymore; on some days the view east looks like a bad day in the Los Angeles basin.

Boulder voters have learned a lot about Xcel’s commitment to coal. We know that Xcel plans to keep running its largest coal-fired generation plant for another fifty years and is in the process of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to extend the life of several of its other coal plants. Xcel is thereby committing the citizens of Colorado to ongoing carbon pollution as well as vulnerability to rising coal prices and uncertainty as to whether there will be enough coal to power these plants in the future. But coal is not the only problem.

The problem is carbon-based fossil fuels in general – not just coal, but also oil and gas. As a planet we only have a limited carbon “budget.” That’s the amount we can burn and still have a 66% chance of not triggering the most destructive forces of climate change. (And even 66% is not great odds.) Disturbingly, we’ve already burned through two-thirds of our budget. We can spend the rest of our budget on either building the will and the infrastructure to move to a post-carbon world, or we can spend it on business as usual and expect a catastrophe: “severe, pervasive, and irreversible” harm to people and the land we love, according to the latest IPCC report.

This brings us back to Xcel, municipalization, and the view from Flagstaff. Xcel, commendably, has made a substantial investment in wind and solar. Yet their generation fleet in Colorado is still over 77% fossil, with over 21% gas-fired.

Natural gas consists predominantly of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that forces about 80 times more global warming than carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere. While it is true natural gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels, when leakage in the system (from well head to end use) exceeds about 3% gas becomes worse for the climate than coal.  NOAA has found leakage rates of 4% to 9% over Colorado and Utah gas fields.

Natural gas production, especially by fracking, brings the additional problems of poisoning our air and water with pollutants like benzene, hexane, and hydrogen sulfide. In the rural but heavily drilled Uinta gas field in Utah, emissions of volatile organic compounds represent the equivalent of about 100 million cars, and smog pollution exceeds the federal standard set to protect public health by 89%. Contrary to the “nature pornography” of mountain vistas or healthy rock-climbers that you see in the full-page ads from gas companies, the true face of natural gas is what you see these days from the top of Flagstaff.

As a private citizen I have no way of knowing where Xcel gets its natural gas, but I know that wherever it comes from, it causes these sorts of problems. And all of us share the same air.

While we transition towards the goal of a carbon-free economy, we of course need to continue to extract some amount of oil and gas because our current mode of civilization depends on it. But there’s no need to delay the transition. Even with “cheap” gas, it’s a false economy to save a few dollars on our energy costs now but in the process condemn our children and grandchildren to climate chaos with ever-increasing wildfires, floods, droughts, and skyrocketing food prices due to crop failures. That’s like trying to save money by driving on tires after they have become bald.

Denmark already has 40% renewable energy on its grid. A new study out of Germany shows that it is economically to their advantage to move as quickly as possible to a system of 80% renewable energy. The cost of wind and solar electricity has plummeted over the last five years, so much so that in some markets renewable generation is now cheaper than coal or natural gas. And prices continue to fall.

We need a new way of running our electric grid that will free us as soon as possible from the poisons of fossil fuels. And in order to do that we need a utility (and a PUC) that will either lead or get out of the way.

Since Xcel has refused to lead, we have turned to municipalization. Next time you look east from Flagstaff, think of municipalization as helping to clear the air.

By Chris Hoffman
After a 23-year career in the energy industry, Chris Hoffman works as an independent consultant.

This opinion was originally published by Boulder Daily Camera