DENVER—Democrats rejected pleas Wednesday by Republicans and rural lawmakers to repeal the renewable-energy mandate, a bitterly divisive measure that fueled last year’s 51st state movement and three legislative recall drives.
The 3-2 party-line committee vote protects Senate Bill 252, which doubles the rural renewable-energy mandate to 20 percent by 2020. No bill passed in 2013 by the Democrat-dominated state legislature other than the three gun-control measures generated more outrage.
“The 800 lb. gorilla in this room right now is that rural-urban divide that we all talked and heard a lot about last fall,” said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway in his testimony. “And it impacted this body. I believe there are a couple of senators that aren’t here anymore because of what happened last session, and part of that was related to the SB 252 discussion.”
Two Democratic state senators were recalled in September for the first time in state history, while a third resigned before recall petitions could be submitted.
Sen. Ted Harvey (R-Highlands Ranch) called the repeal bill, SB 35, “an attempt to right a terrible wrong that this legislature did to rural Colorado last year and that the governor did to rural Colorado last year.”
Foes of SB 252 said they knew they were in for an uphill battle when the Democratic leadership assigned the repeal bill to the Senate Committee on State, Veterans and Military Affairs, also known as the “kill committee.”
“I understand today this committee where bills go to die, and I hope it’s not that case with SB 35,” said Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid. “It’s important to us, and it’s important to rural Colorado and my constituents.”
Still, the Senate committee defeat doesn’t mean the fight is over. House Republicans introduced a bill Wednesday that would lower the mandate from 20 to 15 percent.
Testifying against a repeal of SB 252 were officials from renewable-energy companies like Vestas Wind Systems, who said their business is thriving in Colorado’s pro-renewables climate.
“Vestas supported SB 252 last year and we don’t see a need to reverse last year’s legislative decisions that help expand job creation and help support renewable energy development here in Colorado,” said Susan Innis, Vestas senior manager for public affairs.
Sen. Matt Jones (D-Longmont) insisted that rural communities would not see their electricity costs increase despite the requirement to use more wind and solar energy instead of less expensive natural gas and coal.
“The energy prices aren’t going to go up because the energy’s free. It’s a win-win-win. It’s good jobs. It’s cleaner, cheaper,” said Jones.
But Harvey, the repeal bill’s sponsor, shot back that if wind and solar were cheaper, energy companies would be relying on those sources already.
“For you to say that it is cost competitive with natural gas is a joke,” said Harvey. “If you honestly believe that, then let’s take away all the subsidies and I call your bluff.”
Kinkaid said his community is watching businesses close and jobs depart as a result of the state legislature’s recent moves to promote renewable energy at the expense of coal.
“SB 252 puts us in a really tight spot, and I think unnecessarily,” said Kinkaid. “We’re in tough times and we could sure use your help. I wish you could come to Craig. We have yard signs all over that say, coal keeps the lights on. People in our neck of the woods are pretty fired up over the future, as they should be.”
Conway said he supports renewable energy—his county generates more wind and solar than any other in Colorado—but asked the committee to “push the reset button” and craft a bill that would support renewables without harming rural communities.
He also called it unfair to exempt municipalities from the same mandate.
“I’m already seeing the impacts of 252 in Weld County. I’m seeing small agriculture producers, because of the cost entailed in potential rate increases, sometimes as high as 50%, saying, ‘I’m not going to be able afford it, I’m putting the farm up for sale,’” said Conway.
Environmental groups cheered the committee’s vote to preserve SB 252. “Any attempt to further weaken this law will cost jobs and will mean less renewable energy will be produced in Colorado,” said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado. “That’s not what Coloradans want and that’s not what’s good for our economy.”