Sheila McNulty Natural gas industry heartened by Colorado clean-energy plan

Bill Ritter, Colorado’s governor; Xcel Energy and a coalition of lawmakers, energy companies and environmentalists have agreed on legislation to cut air pollution, create jobs and increase the use of cleaner energy. The legislation, which still must be approved, calls for Xcel Energy to sharply reduce pollutants by retiring, retrofitting or repowering coal-fired power plants by the end of 2017 and replacing them with facilities fueled by natural gas and other lower- or non-emitting energy sources.

Of course natural gas would be among the fuels up for consideration. It produces about 50 per cent less carbon emissions than coal, which is the most carbon intensive of all fossil fuels and the most widely used to generate electricity in the US.  The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the average US coal plant – the biggest source of electricity in the US – emits 4.6m metric tons of CO 2 each year. That is almost double that of a natural gas-fired plant. There are 600 coal-fired electricity plants in the US.

Nuclear, too, would be an option. It has zero carbon emissions. But the prospects of nuclear are still grim, considering the lengthy approval process by the federal government, high cost at about $5bn a reactor, and public fears over nuclear accidents. The decision in February by the Vermont Senate to close an Entergy Corp nuclear power plant 140 miles from Boston, when its licence expires in 2012, underlines the difficulties of getting public support to replace the US’ ageing nuclear infrastructure.

Under the Colorado proposal, which is to go through both the state Senate and House, Xcel will evaluate retiring or retrofitting 900 megawatts of coal-fired capacity at metro-area powero plants, giving primary consideration to replacing or repowering those plants with natural gas and other lower-emitting resources. In the words of Ritter:

Colorado’s new energy economy is already leading the country toward a cleaner and more secure energy future. This proposal will keep Colorado at the forefront of America’s energy revolution. It will protect consumers, clean our air and protect public health, and create new jobs by increasing demand for Colorado-produced natural gas.

That Colorado is such a big gas producer has the industry excited about this proposal. The state has the US’ third largest reserves of natural gas and is the seventh largest producer of natural gas. On top of that, it needs all the energy it can get with projections that the state’s population is to double to 10m people over the next 40 years.