Can a push to reduce electricity usage reduce the need for new power plants in the Rockies despite the region’s population growth?
By Allen Best, New West
In 1989, energy activist Amory Lovins noticed a simple typo — “negawatt” for “megawatt” — in a report. That simple mistake, thought Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Aspen, captured the essence of what he believed should be done. Instead of building new power plants, he advocated using existing electrical generation more efficiently.
That idea of negawatts continues to gain purchase in the West as investor-owned utilities, which are overseen by state utility commissions, begin to bend down the growth in electrical demand even while earning profits.
Last week, for example, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission set energy-saving goals for Xcel Energy, the state’s largest provider of electricity and gas. The PUC specified that Xcel should aim to institute electrical savings equivalent to 1.14 percent of sales beginning in 2012, escalating to 1.68 percent of sales in 2020. The PUC, in its written opinion, called these targets “properly ambitious yet realistically achievable.”
The Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, an activist group, estimates that if Xcel succeeds, the savings in Colorado will shave electrical use by four billion kilowatt hours per year in 2020. That’s unlikely to close power plants, but it’s could eliminate the need to build a 575-megawatt power plant for base-load generation, says Howard Geller, the group’s founder.
This doesn’t mean that power plants will be retired because of slackened demand. Brisk population growth continues across most parts of the West, with no end in sight. Colorado, for example, now has more than 5 million people, with 8 million expected by 2040. But the urgency to build new power plants has faltered, and not just because of the slowed economy.
Colorado illustrates changed thinking in the West, where utilities in recent years have started tackling energy efficiency with as much vigor as they once reserved for building new power plants.