October 6, 2020

By Marcia Martin

Last Thursday, Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) betrayed the people of Longmont.

Longmont, Fort Collins, Loveland and Estes Park founded and own PRPA. It generates and delivers electric power to the four cities. In 2018, each city, starting with Longmont, mandated 100% carbon-free electricity by 2030. It’s PRPA’s job to make that happen.

PRPA betrayed us by deceiving the public about our mandate. They must periodically create Integrated Resource Plans (IRPs) describing how they will meet our power needs. IRPs are 20-year plans, but revised roughly every five years. PRPA is about to adopt a new IRP which falls short of the 2030 mandate.

The plan squanders our money by investing in new fossil-fueled generators (called RICE plants) so late in the IRP cycle that they will violate state law if operated to the end of their useful life. Though PRPA should not even be considering such a foolish plan, they are aggressively promoting it. Board member Mayor Brian Bagley fired an early volley in this disinformation campaign in his Times-Call op-ed of Friday, Sept. 25.

I believe Mayor Bagley’s defense of PRPA’s proposal is sincere. PRPA’s leadership is at fault. They are not dealing honestly with the Board of Directors or the public. We deserve better.

PRPA set up a choice between two options. The first claims to achieve a 90% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. (Quantitative analysts in the community disagree.) It grows renewables, but also adds 100 megawatts of capacity from gas-fired RICE plants in 2030, and more in 2038(!). This is nothing like a zero-carbon plan.

PRPA wants RICE because you can engage a RICE turbine very fast at need. That’s called “dispatchable” capacity. It fills gaps in renewable production, keeping power supply aligned with demand. But because RICE burns gas from fracking, its environmental penalty is nearly as bad as coal. Colorado now requires utilities to end coal burning by 2030 and all fossil fuels by 2040.

Here’s the deception: PRPA positioned a second portfolio that does meet the 2030 mandate as the sole alternative to the RICE plants. But that portfolio was designed to fail.

The zero-carbon portfolio changes little until 2030, then spends a billion dollars on utility scale batteries to replace PRPA’s fossil fuel plants. PRPA inflated the cost of that by assuming battery prices would only drop 27% by 2030. (Battery prices dropped 20% last year alone.) Consumer rates, they threatened, would need to begin going up next year to cover the cost of the future batteries.

No power engineer would construct a zero-carbon energy portfolio this way. It was designed from the start to “prove” the 2030 goal impossible and make those RICE plants look good. It’s a billion-dollar battery strawman.

Local activists called out this deception in February. But last Thursday, when PRPA and the board met to finalize the IRP, PRPA returned to their false dichotomy, wasting the session ridiculing the zero-carbon model and evangelizing for the RICE plants. They didn’t discuss carbon-neutral dispatchable alternatives to RICE — even though they exist. PRPA told the board to “sell” the public on the 90% portfolio. They handed out draft letters to the editor for board members to sign and submit to local papers.

This is wrong. PRPA should take direction from its board, not vice versa.

Today, PRPA understands coal plants. Its antiquated modeling methods and hidebound thinking can’t handle the carbon-neutral technologies that will replace “natural” gas. They are distributed energy resources, chemical storage, and real-time load balancing through automation. The zero-carbon solution won’t be a crude, monolithic one like a billion dollars worth of batteries. It will be a combination of complementary means. PRPA must hire more creative experts and invest in better tools. When they’re an organization that’s prepared for the future, they won’t have to be afraid of the truth.

We are PRPA’s boss. Let’s insist that they improve their capability, engage honestly with us, and do their job.

Marcia Martin is a Member of the Longmont City Council. This op-ed represents her opinion, not an official policy of the City of Longmont. Martin is a software engineer and spent the last 7 years of her private sector career creating enabling technology for the all-renewable electrical grid.