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Renewable Energy Deployment in Colorado and the West

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, June 6th, 2016


Executive Summary

Figure 1. Combined zonal/nodal structure used for the CO-centric version of RPMFuture renewable power plant development in Colorado will be determined by a combination of market and policy demands as well as the economic competitiveness of renewable technologies relative to other generation options, such as natural gas. However, the amount of renewable generation capacity deployed is driven by the availability and quality of local energy resources and their relative location to transmission infrastructure or metropolitan and other areas with high electricity consumption. An informed outlook of the future electricity system in Colorado will require detailed considerations of these dynamics and constraints. Such an outlook can be useful for utility and land planners in assessing investment and policy decisions over the next two decades.

The Royal Gorge Field Office of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) commissioned the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to conduct an assessment of potential trends in future renewable energy technology development within the state of Colorado. BLM requested analysis to help the agency and general public understand the locations of potential solar and wind energy developments over a 15-year horizon in Colorado. This analysis uses a combination of electric system capacity expansion modeling and geographic information system (GIS) tools and is intended to help inform the BLM during the multi-year development of a new Eastern Colorado Resource Management Plan (ECRMP). RPM results highlight trends in Colorado that will help BLM identify areas to consider for renewable energy development allocations in resource management plans.

More specifically, our analysis highlights regions within Colorado where future utility-scale wind and solar generation development might take place based on scenarios developed using NREL’s Resource Planning Model (RPM). We use RPM to simulate multiple scenarios of the future power system in Colorado and the U.S. West through 2030. These scenarios include a Reference scenario and scenarios that span a range of potential natural gas price projections developed by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). On the low end, this range captures a future where delivered natural gas prices remain below $4/MMBtu for all years through 2030 and on the high end, natural gas prices consistently grow after 2015, reaching about $8/MMBtu in 2030. We also model two scenarios that represent proxies for future energy policies that would support a move towards renewable or other low-carbon generation: a scenario wherein CO2 prices grow to about $32 per metric ton CO2 by 2030 and a scenario with an effective 50% renewable energy standard in Colorado that would be achieved by 2030. These scenarios do not imply any policy recommendations, but are modeled to assess—as is common in utility portfolio planning—how renewable development might increase given heightened policy support for lower-carbon generation. More generally, none of the scenarios should be interpreted as predictions or forecasts from NREL or the U.S. Department of Energy.

RPM is designed to represent the integrated effects of multiple complex factors (e.g., load growth, plant retirements, policy demands, renewable grid integration, etc.) that will affect electric infrastructure investments. However, it does not consider factors outside the sector such as the impact on local employment, productivity, health, ecological impact, or other more general economic interactions. Additionally, RPM does not capture differences in permitting, siting, and other challenges associated with land ownership types (e.g., public, private, BLM).

We supplement the RPM analysis with a GIS analysis that enables visual inspection of model results and development opportunities on lands categorized under four distinct ownership types: BLM-administered, non-BLM federal, private, and other. To this end we analyze RPM-generated future portfolios in the context of three different land development preference assumptions. These assumptions specify which land types are used for renewable generation capacity development in order of priority:

  • Proportional preference. Assumes that new generation capacity simulated in the RPM scenarios is built on each of the four categories of land ownership proportional to the distribution of suitable land area of each ownership type within each model region.
  • BLM preference. Assumes that development takes place with the following priority order: BLM-administered land, non-BLM federal, other4, and private land.
  • Private preference. Assumes that development takes place with the following priority order: private land, other, non-BLM federal, and BLM-administered lands.

The purpose of these land development preference assumptions is to provide a reasonable range of BLM-administered land areas that could be used for future renewable development. Application of the land development preference assumptions provides bounding estimates of the possible land area requirements for renewable development within each of the four land ownership categories across all modeled scenarios. In addition to the GIS assessment of the RPM scenario results, we also present high-resolution GIS-based data of suitable land areas for wind and solar development and their proximity to existing transmission infrastructure for multiple regions within Colorado.

Key findings:

In the modeled scenarios, RPM finds that new capacity additions are dominated by renewable technologies across the Western Interconnection and in Colorado:

  • Under a Reference scenario in the Western Interconnection, 35,000 MW of new wind and 48,000 MW of new solar capacity are estimated between 2011 and 2030. Wind and solar are estimated to produce 19% of all generation in 2030.
  • Wind technologies comprise the dominant share of all new Colorado capacity with 4,428 MW of new wind during 2011-2030 (1,558 MW of new solar) in the Reference scenario. In 2030, wind and solar are estimated to contribute 30% of Colorado in-state generation.
  • The low gas price sensitivity yields similar results to the Reference scenario; however, under higher gas prices, much greater renewable development is observed. Under the High Gas price scenario, 6,395 MW of new wind and 2,638 MW of new solar is estimated between 2011 and 2030 in Colorado.
  • The clean energy policy sensitivities explored show greater renewable technology development. Under the scenario which imposes a CO2 price, we find 10,002 MW of new wind and 1,635 MW of new solar in Colorado by 2030. With an expanded (50% by 2030) renewable requirement, we estimate 5,758 MW of new wind and 1,572 MW of new solar in Colorado.

Across all modeled scenarios, the geographic distribution of new renewable capacity additions in Colorado is limited to a relatively few resource regions within the state where the resource quality is high.

  • New utility-scale solar capacity additions are estimated to take place predominantly in the southern part of the state, e.g., in the San Luis Valley. (Rooftop PV installations are more widespread, but are assumed to be somewhat concentrated in the relative population-dense Front Range.)
  • New wind capacity additions are concentrated in the northeast and, to a lesser degree, southeast regions of the state.

The amount of Colorado land area needed to accommodate new renewable capacity additions through 2030 range from 336,000 to 824,000 acres across all five modeled scenarios. o In the ECRMP region (Eastern Colorado), the estimated use of most of the required land area is for wind development. For example, under the highest wind development scenario (CO2 price scenario), 822,000 acres of land are needed for wind development.

  • Wind development is consistently estimated in and near Huerfano County across all scenarios due to the region’s high-quality wind resource potential and proximal location of existing transmission infrastructure.
  • Under most scenarios, a more limited amount of land area is needed for utility-scale solar development (~450 acres in all of Colorado). With high natural gas prices, land area requirements for solar grows to 4,181 acres in the state; however, the vast majority of this area is outside the ECRMP region.

The greatest opportunities for renewable energy development appear to exist on private lands. BLM-administered lands are not necessarily needed to accommodate new renewable capacity additions across any of the scenarios in any of the regions.

  • When prioritizing private lands, no BLM-administered lands will be needed to accommodate future renewable development estimated in the RPM scenarios.
  • On the other hand, when applying a BLM preference to land development, we find that the most aggressive RE development scenario (CO2 price scenario) could use up to 53,600 acres of BLM land in Colorado, of which 52,000 acres are in the ECRMP region, to support new renewable (primarily wind) capacity additions.
  • A proportional distribution of land ownership preferences would lower estimated BLM land area for renewable development to up to 1,070 acres in Colorado, virtually all of which is in the ECRMP region.

The limited need for BLM-administered lands to be used for renewable capacity additions can be explained through the relative difference in the amount of renewable-suitable land areas that are BLM-administered and privately owned.

  • BLM-administered, wind-suitable land area within 10 miles of the nearest transmission infrastructure totals 45,000 acres (capable of supporting ~500 MW) in the ECRMP region compared to 9,000,000 acres (capable of supporting 100,000 MW) that are privately owned.
  • BLM-administered, utility-scale, solar-suitable land area within 10 miles of the nearest transmission infrastructure totals 16,000 acres in the ECRMP region compared to 10,000,000 acres of private land.

Download full version (PDF): Renewable Energy Deployment in Colorado and the West

About the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
NREL develops clean energy and energy efficiency technologies and practices, advances related science and engineering, and provides knowledge and innovations to integrate energy systems at all scales.

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