Rural energy standard legislation brings big crowd to Capitol

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DENVER — A huge crowd has packed a Capitol hearing room Monday afternoon as a Senate committee hears testimony on a controversial bill to impose a stricter renewable energy standard on the state’s largest rural electric cooperatives.

Currently, big investor-owned utilities will have to produce 30 percent of their power from wind, solar or other renewable fuels by 2020. But the customer-owned rural co-ops have just a 10 percent standard.

Senate Bill 252 would raise that to 25 percent for co-ops with more than 100,000 customers and to Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which supplies most Colorado co-ops with their electricity.

The legislation also aims to reduce greenhouse gas-causing emissions in another way — by increasing opportunities to capture vented methane gas from active and inactive coal mines.

Republicans, especially those from rural districts, strongly oppose increasing the R.E.S. but mostly support the methane capture provision of the bill; Democrats strategically folded the two issues into one bill to make it tougher for GOP lawmakers to vote against.

A spokesman for  the state’s energy office told lawmakers at the hearing that Gov. John Hickenlooper supports the Democrat-sponsored legislation.

Democrats argue that the bill will facilitate the generation of more home-grown renewable energy, and note that the bill caps retail cost increases at two percent; but Republicans are skeptical about that figure and believe consumers will pay considerably higher energy costs as a result of the legislation.