03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Economic Wind for New Energy Is Stiffening

On a beautiful and gusty Monday, October 19, Governor Ritter appeared in Boulder at the wind site of the National Renewable Energy Laboratories to celebrate the commissioning of the new Siemens 2.3 megawatt wind turbine, installed as a test facility in our nation's largest government-industry cooperative venture for wind energy.

At over 40 stories high and moving gently with the wind, the turbine seemed natural in its setting, a giant redwood of the plains or a leviathan of the air. Its grandeur was cited by most of the dignitaries as a sign of Colorado's accomplishments in the renewable energy field.

But Henry Kelly, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Energy, warned of the magnitude of our nation's energy predicament in which we to seek to reduce our emissions by 80 percent by 2050, saying, "We will need to be incredibly bold and audacious. And even to reach 20 percent wind power by 2030, we will need to learn a lot." Looking every bit the bureaucrat in his white shirt with dark tie and suit, Kelly used language you'd expect from a race car driver: "One would generally wish a fair wind at the back of a new venture such as this, but in these times this test turbine should face winds that rip at its foundation, torture its blades and baffle its controls."

On the next day at Colorado's New Energy Economy Conference, the Governor did not mention that there was any test of character in store for people and commerce in our state's move toward new energy, but instead he kept to sunny superlatives: In Colorado, we're at the leading edge of a clean-energy revolution... We've created a model strategy for every state in the country to follow. We've built a template for a comprehensive national strategy that marries energy policy with climate policy...

In spite of the Governor's enthusiasm there was a slightly suppressed feeling to the conference, as if everyone was going through the motions. In none of the sessions did anyone mention the elephant in the middle of Colorado's New Energy Economy: Comanche 3, the 750 megawatt new coal plant coming online perhaps as soon as next month.

Comanche3 will run on coal from Wyoming, sending our fuel dollars out of state for coal that will, according to a 2008 report from the United States Geological Survey, come at increasingly lower grades and higher costs in as little as two decades.

To capture this travesty, one needs Henry Kelly's way with metaphor: Comanche 3 is not just the elephant stomping on the governor's New Energy Economy, it's also the proverbial white elephant, that gift from Hindu lore that's part sacred cow and part trophy wife, which makes the perfect gift that keeps on taking.

We don't need it. Comanche 3's energy in the first years of operation will be excess capacity through 2015, as much as 500 megawatts above the 16 percent margin, according to Xcel's formal notice to the Public Utilities Commission in early 2009

Still, we Xcel ratepayers of Colorado will have to feed that white elephant through elevated base and fuel charges (known as the ECA on your bill), even customers having 100 percent subscription to Windsource. This was explained last week at Boulder's Meadows Library by Steve Mudd, Manager for Windsource.

Meanwhile, by Xcel's own numbers the cost of newly installed renewable energy, particularly a "wind heavy" mix as analyzed on pages 65 and 66 of the 2009 "All Source Solicitation 120-Day Report", is forecast to bring real savings to Xcel's service as soon as 2013.

Still, with the logic of shopaholics, Xcel and Governor Ritter continue to defend Comanche 3's contribution as "low cost energy".

It just so happens the National Academy of Sciences doesn't agree with this "low cost" notion in its book-length study just released: "Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use." It sums up the unpaid costs of fossil fuels at about $120 billion per year.

Shouldering an extra $120 billion every year can add up to real money -- exactly the kind that has been breaking our nation's health care system and state and federal budgets. The costs the NAS report finds are mostly health related.

Henry Kelly got it. We are facing a wind that is ripping at our foundations and baffling our controls. The process is well underway.

A version of this column appears in the opinion section of the Boulder Daily Camera.