When Jared Polis won Colorado’s 2018 gubernatorial race, he did it, in part, by charting a bold path towards clean energy.

The Democrat, who has served in the House of Representatives since 2009, ran on a platform of transitioning Colorado to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040—the most ambitious renewable goal in the entire country, Climate Home News reported. That’s even faster than California and Hawaii, which both aim to phase out of fossil fuel generation by 2045.

In my interview with Polis, while on the campaign trail, he said, “The green energy transition would create tens of thousands of jobs and save consumers 10 percent on energy costs”. Pointing to a government study, he said that utility-scale wind is now cheaper than natural gas and that new energy storage technology would further improve these cost benefits. “That’s not to mention the public health benefits of cleaner air and water.”  

Polis said, “We have much work to do and it will be difficult”, adding, “I believe we are a state that should lead the country into the next generation of clean renewable power consumption”.

Colorado can lead the way, but it will come with a price tag for the current generation. Here is a look at a few of the issues on the table.  

Natural gas was the generation of choice in 2018, but renewables are set to make a rebound in 2019 according to The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The organization collects, analyzes, and disseminates independent and impartial energy information to help promote sound policymaking, efficient markets, and public understanding of energy and its interaction with the economy and the environment.

Co-op power suppliers like Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association (Tri-State) rely heavily on fossil fuels for a large portion of their power production. To get to the next level of renewable energy consumption, power providers like Tri-State will need to find ways to reduce fossil fuel consumption by adding more renewables to their portfolio, and, at the same time, advancing their power storage facilities. That will mean phasing out fossil fuel plants earlier than expected, which adds to the cost of conversion.

Tri-State and EDP Renewables (EDPR) have announced a 104 megawatt (MW) 15-year power purchase agreement (PPA) that will enable the continued development and eventual construction of the 104 MW Crossing Trails Wind Farm.  The project, which is expected to be operational in 2020, marks Tri-State’s fifth investment in a utility-scale wind energy project and expands EDP Renewables’ presence into its fifteenth U.S. state.

The Crossing Trails Wind Farm is located approximately 20 miles south of the Town of Seibert and is within both Kit Carson and Cheyenne counties in eastern Colorado.  When operational, the wind farm will produce enough electricity to annually power more than 47,000 average rural Colorado homes.

Tri-State, a wholesale cooperative power supplier owned by 43 member electric cooperatives and public power districts including our local cooperative Mountain Parks Electric (MPEI), has also announced a new 100 Megawatt solar project in Colorado to increase its renewable power supply.  

“Tri-State continues to responsibly add emission-free renewable energy resources that are beneficial to our members,” said Mike McInnes, Tri-State CEO.  “We are pleased to work with EDP Renewables to bring this investment to Colorado.”

Tri-State’s investment in renewable projects should eventually have an affect on our utility bill. The question is when and how much?

For close to 10 years, the conventional wisdom in the energy sector has been that natural gas is the short term bridge in energy consumption. Coal is dirty, and it’s getting expensive, but it’s too early to jump all the way to renewable energy. To move from the fossil fuel present to the renewable future, some see natural gas as a viable bridge, but not a long term solution.

The unraveling of the grid continues as we are seeing communities around the country searching for alternatives to the old monolithic utility.

On an annual basis, natural gas surpassed coal in 2016 as the fuel most used to generate electricity in the United States. Natural gas is a viable way to reduce our emissions relative to coal while we work on scaling up renewables. According to Science Magazine, the shift from coal to gas is a big part of why US emissions have been on the decline.

In its role as a bridge, natural gas seems to have a comfortable future. First, it will continue to replace coal and nuclear “base load” plants, and then, as renewables grow to supply the bulk of power, it will provide flexibility, filling in the gaps where variable renewables (wind and solar) fall short. By playing these multiple roles, some believe that natural gas will long outlive coal and prove useful well into the latter half of the 21st century.

However, complications for this narrative are not as clear as you might think.  First, wind and solar costs are now undercutting the cost of new gas in a growing number of regions. And as batteries (storage solutions) that “firm up” variable renewables are becoming more efficient and cheaper, the need for a long-term natural gas bridge becomes a bit cloudy. In certain limited circumstances, solar+storage or wind+storage is already cheaper than new natural gas plants and able to play all the same roles (and more).

The cost of natural gas power is tethered to the commodity price of natural gas, which is inherently volatile. The price of controllable, storable renewable energy is tethered only to technology costs, which are becoming better and cheaper every day. Recent forecasts suggest that it may be cheaper to build new renewables+storage than to continue operating existing natural gas plants by 2035. “Gas plant replacement with storage is happening as we speak, and is accelerating due to economic forces, broader energy production trends, and increased climate change awareness,” says Ryan Kladar, a senior analyst at consultancy Strategen. “There are plenty of things to slow it down, but I currently view natural gas as a bridge to nowhere.”

What about bringing back that “Clean Beautiful Coal” that President Trump spoke about in campaign speeches leading up to the election of 2016?

In the United States, decreasing demand for coal has contributed to lower coal production, which has fallen by more than one-third since peak production in 2008. As U.S. coal demand has declined, the number of active coal mines has decreased by more than half, from 1,435 mines in 2008 to 671 mines in 2017. As the U.S. market contracted, smaller, less efficient mines were the first to close, and most of the mine closures were in the Appalachian region.

Although underground mines had a larger percentage of closures from 2008 to 2017 (60% versus 49% of surface mines), surface mines have seen larger declines in production, falling 39% compared with 24% for underground mines. Most coal regions contain a mix of both surface and underground mines, except for the Powder River Basin in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming, where large surface mines account for more than 40% of total U.S. production.

Between 2008 and 2017 more than half the coal mines in the U.S. closed. There are 671 operating and about 55,000 miners  .eia.gov/todayinenergy/

Forty three electric cooperatives that rely on Tri-State for their power consumption are now in a position to help push the demand for clean renewable solutions to keep consumer costs under control and manage purchase power agreements as companies like Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association actively invest in our renewable energy future.

Local cooperatives like Mountain Parks Electric have a seat at the Tri-State Board of Directors and therefore have a voice in its governance as Tri-State increases its renewable power supply. Rob Taylor, Manager of Member Relations & Communications said, “Mountain Parks Electric is supportive of adding renewables in a cost-effective manner that doesn’t compromise its members’ expectation of 24×7 reliable power.”

One thing we know. The energy sector is changing rapidly. In the past 10 years, developments in clean energy have come so far so fast that forecasts are under constant revision. Even 10-year forecasts have been rendered almost silly by some experts.  There’s no reason to think the pace of change will slow any time soon.

So there’s much more we do not know, like where the price of natural gas will go, what policymakers will do, or what kinds of economic or other disruptions might be in store. More to the point, though, we have just scratched the surface of what clean energy is capable of.

What does demand response look like in 20 years?  We don’t know what’s possible once a new system of electric vehicles are connected to the grid and charged / discharged depending on the consumer needs or to think, what can we do with millions of appliances hooked up to the grid for use as thermal storage or flexible demand?

We cannot predict what new industries or uses might arise around renewable energy.  There is talk about smart grids that can support transactive power systems, but have barely begun to build and connect them.

We have no idea what’s going to happen but we do know the US needs to decarbonize (as all developed nations do), and that eventually the federal government will get its act together. We know that natural gas, at least without carbon capture and sequestration, is not compatible with a zero-carbon future and must eventually be eliminated.

We know that clean energy resources can do all the things natural gas power plants can do. We know that the cost of natural gas power is tethered to the commodity price of natural gas which is inherently volatile. The price of controllable, storable renewable energy is tethered only to technology costs, which are becoming better and cheaper every day. Stands to reason both trends will continue for years to come.

Natural gas still has global momentum, but it has become risky to build a new gas plant in the US while the UK and South Australia are turning away from natural gas and focusing on renewables.

One thing that seems to stand out is the bridge to a renewable future appears to be much shorter than anyone is currently predicting. Clean energy is fast approaching in natural gas’s rearview mirror, even faster than anticipated. Think about what today’s forecasts will look like in 10 years.