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Rural energy renewables mandate passes House

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DENVER — A day after the Colorado Rural Electric Association board voted not to support a bill that will force rural electric co-ops to draw more of their energy from renewable sources, Democrats pushed the proposal through the House on a final, party-line vote Tuesday after a three hour debate.

Senate Bill 252, which would require rural co-ops with more than 100,000 meters, and utilities that generate and supply electricity on behalf of member co-ops, to get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020, passed the House on a vote of 37-27.

The initial bill that passed the Senate two weeks ago set the renewable energy standard at 25 percent, but the House amended the bill to the 20 percent level.

The bill also would allow the cooperatives to charge more — 2 percent of a customer’s bill instead of just 1 percent now — to pay for the new power source.

“This is a good bill for Colorado,” said the bill’s sponsor, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. It’s a bill that’s going to make sure we create jobs, have cleaner energy and diversify our portfolio.”

Ferrandino noted that XCel Energy and other investor-owned utilities providing power along the front range are already abiding by a 30 percent renewable energy standard.

Republicans argued that the bill will “be a dagger in the heart” of rural Colorado and illustrated the arrogance of Democratic lawmakers from urban areas.

“This bill is the epitome of the Democrats’ ‘We-know-better-than-you’ approach to policy,” said House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs.

With Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the main opponent of the bill, arguing that the changed standard will cost it billions of dollars, Republicans from rural communities argued Tuesday that the measure would be devastating to parts of the state where people are already struggling.

“It’s disappointing that we have a group of legislators thinking they are doing what is best for rural Colorado, when the fact is they are doing absolutely the worst thing they can do,” said Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. “That community is on life support, and when the gavel goes down and this bill passes, the plug goes out and that community is dead.”

Seemingly every House Republican went to the well and railed against the measure on the floor before the final vote, chiding Democrats for putting high-minded ideals and foreign companies above small town farmers, ranchers and business owners.

“It’s truly a sad day for Colorado when the bottom line of companies like Vestas, which is in Denmark, are more important to Colorado’s elected officials than the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers and families in rural Colorado,” said Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. “We should be ashamed of ourselves.”

“The claim that this bill is good for the economy is bogus,” said Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. “It’s about preferential energy.”

Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, that rare rural Democrat, offered a different picture.

“Unlike some of the other rural lawmakers who have spoken here, I have not heard this eternal damnation of renewables,” McLachlan said. “My community is very much in favor of renewables.”

Like with a package of Democratic gun control proposals, the bill highlighted a divide between urban and rural lawmakers. Republicans charged Democrats with taking orders from the environmental lobby; Democrats hit back pointing out that it’s actually the coal industry funding TV ads opposing the bill.

“This is a bill that was brought forward so we can diversify the economies of rural Colorado,” said Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver. “This bill is being brought to protect the quality of life, our clean air, our clean water, the things that make our state so beautiful.”

Over the weekend, the bill’s sponsor, Ferrandino, along with staffers of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s, had been working to get a deal, offering an amendment to the legislation in hopes that the CREA board might move to a neutral position on it.

The proposed amendment would have pushed back the start date back to 2022 and changed the responsibility from the whole-seller to the co-op. But it wasn’t enough to move CREA.

“I spent a lot of time this past week trying to find a compromise, and I thought last Friday that we had that,” Ferrandino said. “And I was willing to move, even though I think this is the right policy. And then Monday, we had the rug pulled out from under us. It is strange to me.”

The bill must go back to the Senate, where lawmakers must sign off on the House changes to it, before it goes to Gov. Hickenlooper’s desk for a signature.

Following the vote, environmental groups heralded the bill’s passage, calling it potentially the most significant energy bill to be passed by any state legislature this year.

“Coloradans should be proud of the state’s leadership on renewable energy as we continue to serve as a model for the rest of the country,” said John Nielsen, Energy Program Director for Western Resource Advocates.

“Colorado is once again at the forefront of diversifying our energy sources and encouraging investment in clean and innovative energy to power our future,” said Pete Maysmith, Executive Director, Conservation Colorado. “This legislation will protect Colorado consumers by preventing price spikes on their electricity bills; and give more Coloradans access to clean wind and solar energy.  By taking advantage of our abundant sunshine and persistent winds, we can generate cleaner energy to reduce air pollution, improve public health, and do our part to tackle climate change for future generations.”