October 3, 2020

By Luc Nadeau and Seth Miller

Mayor Brian Bagley recently authored an op-ed explaining why he, as a board member of our municipally owned utility Platte River Power Authority (PRPA), will vote to adopt an energy portfolio plan that fails to comply with Longmont’s 2-year-old mandate to achieve 100% carbon-neutral electricity by 2030. That proposed plan only claims 90% renewable energy by 2030, and adds a new reciprocating internal combustion engine (RICE) natural gas plant to provide the rest.

To be built in 2030 at a cost of over $160 million, this RICE plant would represent a staggering misfire of an investment: bad for the planet, and bad for our pocketbooks. Bagley is supporting the power plant equivalent of a film camera in a world about to turn digital, and if we are not careful we will be making payments on its unused concrete and steel for decades to come.

Mayor Bagley begins his op-ed by stating the minimum requirements we all share for PRPA: reliable electricity at reasonable rates. The proposed RICE plant is a “peaker,” which only fires up when demand for energy exceeds the current supply. These plants operate less than 10% of the time but are 100% critical: Without peakers, our power would be as volatile as the Colorado weather.

One “green” alternative to a natural gas peaker is battery storage, rechargeable systems that store surplus energy for use when needed. Today, the price of power gas peakers is roughly equal to batteries when built to bridge short dark spells like nightfall. But when power must cover a sunless, snowy winter morning, batteries must be made bigger to cover the longer time before recharge, at a much higher cost. Mayor Bagley claims these costs are too great — that we should curtail our renewables ambitions and tie our future to gas instead.

And he might be right. If the world stayed exactly as it is.

But take a step outside, and the planet doesn’t seem so stable. As we write, the mountains are burning, ash fills the air, and public demand for climate action is growing. In fact, last year our own Colorado Legislature passed bills to require zero-emission electricity statewide by 2040.

Read that sentence again: The RICE plant Mayor Bagley wants to commission in 2030 will have to be scrapped after just 10 years of use. And there is a high likelihood that future laws will clamp down even tighter on carbon emissions. Mayor Bagley is encouraging Longmont to make a decades-long bet on fossil fuels, and we stand to lose tens of millions of dollars if he is wrong.

Meanwhile, batteries are getting cheaper. PRPA’s internal forecasts — the ones that informed Mayor Bagley’s choice of gas — predict that batteries will drop in price by 27% over the next 10 years. The reality is that battery prices have dropped over 20% … since last summer. A recently published study by the Sierra Club confirms that we can economically achieve 98-99% renewable energy by 2030 thanks to new developments in batteries and other energy technologies including grid integration, distributed energy resources, and demand management. The last 1-2% of our energy may indeed come from gas (with fracking later replaced by renewable gas from sources such as landfills), but such smaller plants will not require the kind of $160 million bet on the future of fracking that Mayor Bagley envisions.

The mayor has tried to defend the RICE plant as a “parachute” to be used in case of emergency, but the truth belies that: PRPA literally has no other plan on the table today. If this plant is indeed a parachute, let’s add a clause to the board’s measure that states this explicitly: “PRPA is only recommending a RICE plant as a placeholder for future zero-carbon technologies. It will not be deployed without an exhaustive search for carbon-neutral alternatives.”

Every day the path to renewables becomes more economically compelling, not less. We encourage Mayor Bagley to listen to the voters and ratepayers and to renewable energy experts, and lead us to a future that is both cheaper and greener. Not despite our shunning of fossil fuels, but because of it.

Dr. Seth Miller is an emerging technology consultant with a focus on energy storage, as well as low-emission substitutes across a range of industries. He has a PhD in chemistry from Caltech, and has been a Longmont resident for 8 years. Luc Nadeau sits on the Board for Sustainable Resilient Longmont and serves as chair of the SRL Renewable Energy Committee. He has an MS in fire ecology from Colorado State University and has been involved in a number of green business startups. Luc has been a Longmont resident for over 20 years.