Colorado Ups the Ante for Renewable Energy

Back in July Worldchanging reported on the purchase of a 50kw hydrogen-fueled generator by Xcel Energy for use in wind-to-hydrogen research. Two weeks ago Xcel, which manages much of the American West's energy, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), whose main campus is located in Golden, Colorado, announced the next step (1, 2) towards marrying wind power and the hydrogen economy --- a new facility located at NREL's Wind Technology Center near Boulder, Colorado that uses hydrogen produced by the electrolysis of water to store the energy generated by two wind turbines.

Currently the favored method of producing hydrogen, which is viewed as a possible replacement or fossil fuels in transportation, is to extract it from natural gas. That this approach is highly flawed is obvious --- as the US Department of Energy states, the use of natural gas as a hydrogen precursor cannot be viewed "as a long-term solution because it does not help solve the green house gas (GHG) or energy security issues." The wind-to-hydrogen route being investigated by Xcel and NREL neatly bypasses both of these issues by using water as the precursor (the "waste" produced by splitting hydrogen from water is molecular oxygen) and obtaining the necessary energy from the wind rather than a more traditional coal-fired or nuclear power plant.

Colorado, and the American West in general, is uniquely positioned to take advantage of wind energy; not only does the Great Plains offer more constant wind patterns than other parts of the country, but it is also largely removed from major bird and bat migration corridors. Some environmental questions remain, but the prospects are significantly better in Colorado and other Western States than in many other parts of the country. Farmers in the region have also welcomed wind energy as an additional source of income that has the potential to provide financial security in less productive years. Factors such as these have played a key role in positioning Xcel as the largest purchaser of wind power in the United States, and have helped make wind energy in Colorado less expensive than other sources of electricity.

The citizens of Colorado have been keen to position themselves on the renewable energy vanguard, and the state's government has begun to warm to the position as well. In 2004 Colorado passed a ballot initiative that requires 10% of the energy utilities supply to come from renewable sources by 2015. A similar measure had failed three times in the Colorado state legislature, but the election this past November seems to have significantly changed the government's stance, and plans are already afoot to raise this requirement to 20%. Given that governor-elect Bill Ritter has stated his desire to make "Colorado the renewable energy capital of the world," the future looks bright for wind energy in this state. Or should I say breezy?