Carbon Loading

Xcelís solution to rising energy prices includes a lot of coal. Is that a bad thing?

The settlement calls for a whopping 800 gigawatt-hours (one gigawatt equals a million kilowatts) in electricity savings per year by 2014. "That's much more than they've ever done before," Geller says. "It's about half the level of savings we could get if we had state-of-the-art programs and a commitment like they have in Minnesota. We got half a loaf."

Given the reluctance of the PUC or state leaders to take any initiative on conservation issues -- Governor Bill Owens vetoed two energy-efficiency bills last spring -- the coal plant might end up doing more for renewable energy and DSM programs in the state than any bureaucrat. But several groups that signed off on the agreement acknowledge that they're still waiting to see if the ongoing dialogue with Xcel produces the results they hope for. The company is currently receiving "all-source" bids from independent power producers to meet an expected 2,500 megawatts of additional demand over the next decade. How much wind, gas and other fuels make the short list, expected to be announced in a few weeks, will reveal a great deal about Xcel's priorities.

"Looking back, if I had to do [the settlement] again right now, I feel I would," Baker says. "But that changes every day. Our thing was this would be the last coal plant. If there's coal in this all-source bid and it's accepted by Xcel, then we really look like a bunch of saps."

Extra carbs: A third unit will double the power 
generated by Xcel's Comanche coal plant in Pueblo.
Extra carbs: A third unit will double the power generated by Xcel's Comanche coal plant in Pueblo.

In June 2004, Leslie Glustrom filed a petition to intervene in the PUC hearings to be held on Xcel's coal-plant proposal. Glustrom had found out about the plant by reading the fine print in the fliers the company sent with its electric bill, and she was curious to see how the environmental community was going to respond.

"I wanted to watch the big guys fight this battle," she says. "I was going to sit in the back row and figure out how this worked."

Glustrom was no stranger to activism. She'd worked for years on efforts to protect the Prescott National Forest in Arizona from various mining, ranching and development threats, only to see half the ponderosa pines in the area wiped out in one year by drought and bark-beetle infestation -- events she's convinced had a great deal to do with man-made climate change. "Climate change," she says, "is something that drives me."

At the time she attended the first PUC hearing, Glustrom was considering giving up her job running a research lab at the University of Colorado to work full-time on global-warming issues. What happened in that room made her even more determined. "The room was filled with suits," she recalls. "The only other women were Xcel's attorney and one of the commissioners. I was sitting near the door. It was really intimidating, and I've been an activist for a long time."

Much to her dismay, PUC chairman Sopkin called her name shortly after the hearing began. He wanted to know if she was appearing simply as "a citizen of Boulder" or if she had some special interest in the case. Glustrom said she was there as a citizen of Colorado who was concerned about climate change and the costs of the new coal plant. Sopkin told her that the Office of Consumer Counsel is supposed to represent citizens' interests, and that "things like global-warming theory" were outside the scope of the PUC's expertise.

"I don't want to create an exercise in futility for you here to be involved in this case," Sopkin said.

"I'm very willing to take that -- what you might call 'exercise in futility,'" Glustrom replied. "To me, it's an exercise in citizenship."

Sopkin denied her petition to intervene in the case. She could attend the hearings, but she would not be allowed to speak.

"He made it clear he didn't want me in there," Glustrom says now. "After he denied my petition, three or four of the lawyers in the room handed me their cards. At the break, I was just swarmed with people telling me they couldn't believe he'd behaved so badly."

Later, after some research on the relevant statutes, Glustrom decided that Sopkin's claim that she lacked standing to intervene was erroneous. But her efforts to appeal that ruling proved unsuccessful. So instead, she sat on the sidelines and watched the regulatory process take its course. The process, she says, was skewed in favor of Xcel and its coal plant from the start -- to the point that many of the state's own rules were bent or simply ignored.

The plant is one component in Xcel's latest "least-cost resource plan" -- which, under PUC rules, is supposed to develop power sources at the least cost to customers and give priority to clean-energy technologies. Glustrom claims that the company's calculations undervalued the potential contribution of wind, solar and energy-efficiency measures to the total package; for example, the plan estimates that wind stations produce power only 10 percent of the time, when a 30 percent rating is more accurate. Using Xcel's own data, Glustrom found that the "savings" to customers gained by building the plant could be more than matched by aggressive investment in wind and energy-efficiency programs.

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