Progress on the roadmap

Colorado has a goal to run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2040—how far along the path are we, and is it still achievable?

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Modern wind turbines in a wind farm in Colorado.
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How environmentally sustainable is Colorado?

There’s no succinct way to answer that question without throwing a lot of percentages and statistics around. According to recent reports from commodity.com, this state uses the 11th most solar energy in the country, and the ninth most wind energy. According to the U.S. Energy and Information Center (EIC), it’s ranked as the 21st most environmentally friendly state. And according to Governor Jared Polis’ Roadmap to 100% Renewable Energy by 2040 and Bold Climate Action plan, Colorado has big plans to wean itself off fossil-fuel energy use, replacing it with renewable sources, and drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in the coming years.

That will, indeed, require “Bold Climate Action.” More than 88 percent of the state’s energy still comes from some form of fossil fuel, according to the EIC. 

Clearly, Colorado still has a long way to go before reaching its climate goals. Fossil fuels are so deeply entrenched in this country, this state, our lives, and our economy that it won’t be easy or expeditious to remove them completely from our energy usage, according to Jeff Logan, the associate director of energy policy and analysis at the University of Colorado at Boulder. 

But, experts like Logan believe it’s achievable—even if the target is ambitious. 

“I think it’s possible,” Logan says, of the 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 goal. “The challenges are not so much technical, but political and social.” 

He explains, we already have all of the technological requirements to switch completely over to renewable sources of energy and to do it fast. However, decarbonizing things from cement production to airplane fuel will be complicated and require significant investments from people, businesses and the government. Changing our ways will be harder than simply implementing the technology that’s already there, he says. 

“Shutting down coal plants as quickly as possible is probably the most important thing to do,” Logan says. That would create cascading sustainability effects on energy usage across the state, he explains—suddenly, homes, businesses, electric vehicles, and anything else powered by the grid wouldn’t be burning coal for its energy.

“[It’s] hard to say if that’s the lowest hanging fruit, but it probably is,” Logan says. 

And Colorado is reaching for it, according to the EIC. In 2010, 68 percent of Colorado’s net generation came from coal-fired power plants—by 2020, that had come down to just 36 percent. That trend will likely continue, as Xcel has promised to be delivering 100 percent renewable-based electricity by 2050. 

Still, Colorado’s largest source of energy isn’t renewable. According to the EIA’s estimates from 2019, Colorado uses over twice as much natural gas energy as it does coal. And natural gas usage has been steadily on the rise since 2017, according to EIC’s data—which leaves a lot of ground to cover by 2040. 

The biggest consumer sectors in Colorado are (perhaps not surprisingly) transportation and industry—accounting for 29.3 percent and 27.6 percent of the state’s energy consumption respectively. Following that is residential-use accounting for 24 percent and commercial-use, accounting for remaining 19.1 percent. 

And only 11.3 percent of all that comes from wind, solar, or other renewable sources. 

Enter: Governor Jared Polis’ Roadmap to 100 Percent Renewable Energy by 2040 and Bold Climate Action plan. 

“This is our plan for creating a pathway to 100 percent renewable energy in our state, creating good green jobs that can never be outsourced, and saving people money on electricity,” Governor Jared Polis said in a press release from 2019. “The roadmap is not just about a vision, but includes concrete steps that will help us reap the economic benefits of renewable energy, curb pollution of our air, and fight climate change.”

The roadmap describes the state’s progress towards these goals to date, and lays out how the Polis administration is working with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) of Colorado to expedite our transition to renewable energy. It also describes the recently passed HB1261, which sets economy-wide targets for reducing Colorado’s GHG emissions—by 26 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels; by 50 percent by 2030; and by 90 percent by 2050. 

The document also details the steps the Polis administration is taking to modernize Colorado’s PUC; grow “green jobs” and save consumers money; promote energy efficiency; increase the amount of zero-emissions vehicles and improve commuting options; ensure a just and equitable transition to renewable energy for all of Colorado’s residents; and build more zero-emissions buildings over the next 20 years. 

All of which will be necessary if Colorado wants to do its part to avoid climate disaster, Logan believes.

“If we’re going to succeed in stopping climate change or stopping the worst that could happen, we’re going to need a big change in the way that people behave. And it’s hard to imagine how that’s going to happen,” Logan says. “It’s going to be hard, but I think Colorado has great potential to do it compared to many other states.”