By Michael Hiatt
The growing revolt at the state level over Trump's climate policies reflects unwillingness among policymakers to turn away from years of work transitioning to clean energy. Colorado is a case in point. Gov. John Hickenlooper's recent executive order committing Colorado to meeting or exceeding the greenhouse gas reduction targets set in Paris follows regulatory developments that will propel the state toward a new clean energy economy.
Colorado has long been a national leader in developing clean, renewable energy. In 2016, it was the seventh largest wind producing state and the eleventh largest solar producing state. More than 25 percent of the electricity generated by Colorado's largest electric utility, Xcel Energy, last year came from renewable energy resources. In addition, renewables' share of the generation mix will increase to 30 percent by 2020 under the state's Renewable Energy Standard.
Currently, four recent regulatory developments are poised to accelerate Colorado's clean energy transition:
1. Wind and utility-scale solar are the cheapest resources in Colorado, today and in the future.
In May 2016, Xcel filed its long-term electric resource plan, which forecasts current and future energy prices. Xcel's plan makes it clear that both wind and utility-scale solar are currently the cheapest resources in Colorado, and Xcel anticipates it will soon purchase significant amounts of new wind and solar to take advantage of these low renewable prices. What's more, Xcel concluded that wind and utility-scale solar will likely remain the cheapest resources in the future, even as the current federal tax incentives are phased out.
Working with Vote Solar, Earthjustice intervened in the Colorado Public Utilities Commission proceeding regarding Xcel's plan to ensure it evaluated solar on a level playing field with fossil fuels. Earthjustice attorneys successfully argued the plan should incorporate the social cost of carbon when Xcel calculates the costs of burning fossil fuels.
2. Distributed solar will continue to grow in Colorado through a landmark settlement agreement.
Partnering with Vote Solar, Earthjustice helped negotiate a landmark settlement agreement that preserves net metering and ensured these distributed solar resources will continue to grow in the future. As a result of the settlement, Xcel will add an additional 225 megawatts of rooftop solar and 105 megawatts of community solar by 2019. (There are currently more than 275 megawatts of rooftop solar on Xcel's system and approximately 30 megawatts of community solar projects).
The settlement will also implement a voluntary trial program to analyze a new time-of-use (TOU) rate design. This new TOU rate should further incentivize the optimal deployment of rooftop solar, energy storage and other distributed energy resources.
3. Decoupling will provide a new policy tool to encourage the growth of rooftop solar and energy efficiency, while maximizing benefits for low-usage and low-income customers.
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission recently approved a decoupling mechanism for Xcel, which Earthjustice worked with Vote Solar to support. Decoupling removes a utility's disincentive to promote rooftop solar, energy efficiency, and other measures that reduce electricity sales. This new decoupling mechanism should help ensure Xcel continues to support rooftop solar and energy efficiency in the future.
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission also adopted Earthjustice's recommendations that benefit low-usage and low-income customers. The "Tucson Model" applies decoupling credits to low-usage rate tiers and decoupling charges to high-usage rate tiers in order to maximize benefits for low-usage and low-income customers. Colorado is the first state to implement the "Tucson Model" for decoupling.
4. Xcel begins construction on an additional 650 megawatts of clean energy.
Xcel recently began construction on the Rush Creek wind farm located on Colorado's eastern plains. Rush Creek will generate 600 megawatts of electricity when it is completed in 2018. The project will be Colorado's largest wind farm, and it will consist of 300 wind turbines that will be built in Colorado.
Xcel will soon begin construction on a 50-megawatt utility-scale solar facility as part of its new Renewable*Connect program. The Renewable*Connect program will allow Xcel customers to directly subscribe to the electricity generated from a large solar facility. This new solar program is due to the settlement agreement achieved by Earthjustice and Vote Solar.
This recent good news from Colorado indicates that clean energy will continue to grow and prosper despite the Trump administration, even in states with a substantial fossil fuel industry. Colorado shows that while there may be dark storm clouds at the federal level, the future of clean energy is clear.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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