With winters’ storms, fossil fuels still needed

The winter storm which hammered the nation’s midsection for more than a week, and paralyzed much of Texas last week, is a reason why the nation still needs a mix of energy sources.

Temperatures dropped below zero for a couple of nights in Salida and Chaffee County but seasonal highs and lows returned by the end of the week. For more than half the nation, however, storms and cold continued for days with a deadly tornado reported in North Carolina.

The Arctic front swept down from Canada earlier this month bringing with it snow cold – cold that kept more than half the nation in a frigid grip for in some cases nearly two weeks.

The storm is a reminder that, while solar and wind energy are growing in importance and in the share of electrical energy they produce, the nation relies on fossil fuels – in particular natural gas – for much of its heating and electrical generation as well as for backup when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind stops blowing.

It will be some time before battery systems are able to provide the backup energy needed when solar and wind cannot operate to meet demands. 

This means fossil fuels, reliable natural gas and to a lesser extent coal, will be needed to supply the nation’s energy needs for years if not decades into the future.

No overnight jumps

A Feb. 12 Mountain Mail story by Max Smith highlights one key reason why energy providers are not able to jump overnight to alternate energy sources, that is, debt.

Sangre de Cristo Electric Association, which supplies electricity to Buena Vista and to northern Chaffee and western Fremont counties, gets power through Tri-State Generation.

Tri-State has been criticized for supposedly dragging its heels on converting to wind and solar. 

Sangre’s Paul Erickson said Tri-State owes $900 million in long term debt on its coal and natural gas generating plants, debt that “has to be paid whether somebody’s buying that output or not.”

Like other energy providers, he said Tri-State borrows funds from Wall Street entities agreeing to long-term (50-year) contracts in exchange for low interest rates. Rates would about double, Mr. Erickson said, if the energy wholesaler would abandon its existing fossil fuel sources.

Tri-State is moving toward wind and solar, he said, having announced it will be shuttering its coal-fired generating plant in Craig in northwest Colorado along with its Colowyo Mine by 2030.

“We’re moving as aggressively as possible,” Mr. Erickson said, “but we can’t run a utility on ideology. We have to have real solid economics,” to protect consumers who rely on Sangre de Cristo and Tri-State for their electrical power.

Outhouse alternative?

Habitat for Humanity would prefer to build project homes in Salida and Buena Vista but cannot afford to afford to pay going rates for land in the two municipalities.

As an alternative, Habitat is looking to build two new homes in Nathrop, but is running into issues with lots, streets and alleys created in 1881 while dealing with 2021 county land use codes.

Dale Shoemaker, board president, said Habitat is seeking to build two units on five existing lots but cannot meet county wastewater treatment lot size minimum requirements for one of the units.

“I kind of wish we were back then (in 1881),” he said, tongue firmly in cheek. “We could just put an outhouse out there and be done with it. But we try and provide more convenience now.”

— MJB