The CPD at CSU provided a public deliberative event in Spring 2020 in each of the four Colorado communities that a wholesale electricity provider serves to help their energy planning process on the best way to decarbonize, focusing on tradeoffs between 4 plans.
Problems and Purpose
As communities begin to pass resolutions to change the source of their electricity from fossil fuels to renewable energy due to concerns about the climate, air quality, and health, utility companies need to plan their path through the energy transition. Electric utilities have traditionally been most concerned with safety, reliability, and reducing costs. Environmental sustainability has become a more recent concern and is forcing utilities to rethink their approach to producing electricity. Transitioning from coal and gas to wind, solar, and hydropower creates tradeoffs between these values of reliability, environmental impact, and reducing costs.
Background History and Context
The Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) is a publicly owned wholesale electricity provider for four municipal utilities in northern Colorado: Fort Collins, Longmont, Loveland, and Estes Park. In 2017 and 2018, three of those cities set goals to attain 100% renewable energy (RE) by 2030. In 2018, the PRPA board of directors also set a goal to attain 100% carbon-free electricity by 2030. At the time, 65% of the electricity for PRPA was sourced from two coal fired power plants in Northern Colorado[i]. 18% of the power came from hydropower dams throughout the West, and just 8% and 2% came from wind and solar power, respectfully. Transitioning from a heavy reliance on coal toward more renewable sources would require strategic and coordinated planning.
In 2019, the Colorado General Assembly passed HB19-1261, the “Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution”. This bill set statewide targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050 from 2005 levels. All wholesale utilities in Colorado were required to submit a clean energy plan (CEP) that reduced emissions by at least 80% by 2030.
Every five years, PRPA is required to produce an integrated resource plan (IRP). As the utility is publicly owned, they conducted two listening tours and extensive surveys in each of the four cities served in 2018 and 2019[ii]. This included traditional public meetings with a presentation by the PRPA staff, followed by a question-and-answer session by the residents. Videos and reports from this process can be found on the PRPA website at ttps://www.prpa.org/irp/moreinformation/.
The Mayor of Fort Collins (the largest of the four cities served by PRPA) reached out to Dr. Martin Carcasson, director of the Center for Public Deliberation (CPD) at Colorado State University (CSU) and requested a deliberative approach to the community outreach portion of the IRP process.[iii]
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Dr. Carcasson and staff from the CPD worked through summer and fall 2019 to prepare for the deliberative events in March 202. This included multiple meetings with staff from the PRPA, reviewing the listening tour documents, and outside research. PRPA provided the funding, as they were interested in changing their public outreach at this critical transition point in how they provide electricity to their member communities.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The participant recruitment included open invitations to the communities and did not have any targeted outreach to any particular demographic. As a result, the self-selected community members who were participants were not fully representative of the respective towns, as 64% reported graduate school as their highest level of education, with another 25% being college graduates[iv]. This participant portion of 89% who had completed a bachelors or graduate degree is significantly higher than the population in each of these cities, where the percentage of those having college bachelor degrees range from 55% to 37%[v]. Additionally, the participants were generally of high-income brackets and older, with 72% above 54 years old, and only 16% under 45[vi]. This created a highly informed and engaged set of participants in each of the four forums, albeit with limited diversity.
Methods and Tools Used
Dr. Carcasson and his team decided to use an “NIF-style guide” with four options for participants to consider, because it “fit the wicked problem situation so well, with tradeoffs required between PRPA’s four pillars of reliability, environment, economy, and safety” to meet the energy transition goals[vii]. The CPD in conjunction with PRPA created an 11”x17” placemat, which included background, four portfolio options to consider, and reflection questions[viii]. The CPD employed their trained facilitators and notetakers to lead the discussions and record what was said. There were between seven and nine tables at each of the first three events, with approximately six participants at each table.
The first three events were held in person, including in Longmont on March 3, Estes Park on March 5, and Loveland on March 11. The final event in Fort Collins, scheduled for March 12, 2020, was cancelled due to the growing concern for the COVID-19 virus. As this was right at the start of the global pandemic (which subsequently honed the skills of the CPD and much of the world in using online platforms for event facilitation) the alternative was an online survey, which was available March 13-25, 2020.
Each of the four portfolios were designed by PRPA planners and included a description, impacts, what would be done, supporting arguments, and tradeoffs:
Portfolio option 1: Continuity – Business-as-usual approach maintaining a reliance on coal power.
Portfolio option 2: No coal-fired generation by 2030 – Retiring all coal resources, replacing them with wind, solar, and gas as needed to maintain reliability.
Portfolio option 3: 100% non-carbon generation by 2030 – Retiring all fossil fuel generation and replacing it with RE and storage.
Portfolio option 4: Integrated utilities – Accelerating distributed energy (rooftop solar) and electrical vehicle adoption, while economically transitioning from fossil fuel sources over a longer timeframe.
In each of the first three events, Dr. Carcasson gave a presentation overview of the process, current and upcoming expected energy portfolios, and ground rules (video version for the fourth event can be found in the links below). This was followed by a one hour conversation at each table on the four portfolio options, and a final reflection discussion and survey.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The three in person focus groups and one online focus survey included in depth discussions around the four potential paths that PRPA could take with its energy portfolio. There were 116 participants overall, with a range from 33 in Longmont to 48 in Estes Park. The CPD facilitators engaged the participants in deep discussions surrounding the tradeoffs of the varying portfolio options. The CPD notetakers recorded over 4600 cells of responses via a shared document[ix].
Overall, the participants gave the events very high reviews in the final surveys. 85% indicated they were “very satisfied” or “satisfied”, 99% said they were treated with respect “almost always” or “often”, and 38% reported never having trouble understanding the discussion with another 38% rarely having trouble understanding[x].
The level and tone of engagement was notably different from the perspective of the PRPA staff that had previously conducted the listening sessions, in that they were overall more engaged, informed and focused on the nuanced of the decision-making process that the planners had been working through[xi]. This series of events was recognized as a model of community interaction among other utilities and community members in Northern Colorado.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Discussion primarily focused on portfolio options two and three, which had a full shift to RE, with the difference being a reliability dependence on gas in #2 and battery storage in #3. Participant opinions were consistently in favor of the aggressive transition to 100% RE in portfolio 3, though they were “unwilling to sacrifice system reliability and most participants expressed only mild interest in spending more than what was otherwise necessary for quality electric service in pursuit of that goal”[xii]. The participants were tasked not with deciding on a preferred portfolio, but rather on identifying the merits and limitations of each portfolio[xiii]
Portfolio 1 was included as a baseline comparison for the other models. It was largely dismissed by participants, who often held a strong opposition to coal. Some participants were frustrated by the inclusion of this portfolio option who saw it as backtracking on the 2018 pledge[xiv].
Portfolio 2 received mixed reviews, with responses splitting into two groups. One group applauded the merits of a fast transition to RE, while still maintaining reliability and low rates with the peak dependence on gas peaker plants. The other group indicated that it did not present a fast enough transition entirely away from fossil fuel sources[xv].
Portfolio 3 was the preferred option by many participants from the beginning. These supporters applauded the rapid transition to 100% RE and expressed high confidence in technological gains in wind and solar that would outperform the negative impacts presented in PRPA’s models[xvi]. Concern for this portfolio centered on the high cost of battery storage, as well as the environmental impacts of making those batteries.
Portfolio 4 was met with less clear responses than the previous three portfolios. There was general support for distributed energy resources (DERs), but general pushback on the slower timeline away from coal and gas power.
The final part of the discussion focused on PRPA’s three pillars of reliability, financially sustainable and environmentally responsible energy and services[xvii]. This section focused on the four questions:
How important is a 100% non-carbon energy mix?
How important is reliable electric service?
How important are low electricity rates?
As you consider prioritizing and balancing these three pillars, what suggestions do you have?
Participants in general advocated for a higher value placed on environmental responsibility and reliability over maintaining lower costs.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
PRPA used the results from the CPD’s report as part of their two-year public engagement campaign to finalize their 2020 IRP, which was approved during the October 29, 2020 PRPA board meeting[xviii]. The IRP included all four portfolios as well as a description of the engagement process and results of the modelling for each energy portfolio. The portfolio recommendation in the IRP was portfolio 2, which they identified as “zero coal”[xix]. The PRPA recommended this as the best option to maintain all three pillars while also attaining drastic emissions reductions and exceeding the goals set by the state.
[i] Carcasson, Martin. Charting OUR energy future. Platte River Power Authority. Presentation, Loveland, Longmont, Estes Park, Fort Collins, CO, USA. March 4-12, 2020.
[iii] Carcasson, Martin. Interview with John Parks. February 15, 2022.
[iv] Carcasson, Martin. “Platte River Power Authority Community Focus Groups Report: Key Summary of Findings”. Center for Public Deliberation, June 2020. https://cpd.colostate.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2020/06/CPD-PRPA-Final-Report-june-9.pdf
[v] US Census Bureau. “Quick Facts: Loveland city, Colorado; Estes Park town, Colorado; Longmont city, Colorado; Fort Collins city, Colorado”. Accessed March 9, 2022. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/lovelandcitycolorado,estesparktowncolorado,longmontcitycolorado,fortcollinscitycolorado,larimercountycolorado/EDU685219
[vi] Carcasson, Martin. “Platte River Power Authority Community Focus Groups Report: Key Summary of Findings”. Center for Public Deliberation, June 2020.
[vii] Carcasson, Martin. Interview with John Parks. February 15, 2022.
[viii] Platte River Power Authority. “How should Platte River Power Authority pursue a noncarbon energy future?”. March, 2020. https://cpd.colostate.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2020/03/options-document-in-four-pages.pdf
[ix] Carcasson, Martin. “Platte River Power Authority Community Focus Groups Report: Key Summary of Findings”. Center for Public Deliberation, June 2020.
[x] Carcasson, Martin. “Platte River Power Authority Community Focus Groups Report: Key Summary of Findings”. Center for Public Deliberation, June 2020.
[xi] Carcasson, Martin. Interview with John Parks. February 15, 2022.
[xii] Platte River Power Authority. “2020 Integrated Resource Plan”. 2020. Fort Collins, CO. pg. 32.
[xiii] Carcasson, Martin. “Platte River Power Authority Community Focus Groups Report: Key Summary of Findings”. Center for Public Deliberation, June 2020. Pg11.
[xiv] Carcasson, Martin. “Platte River Power Authority Community Focus Groups Report: Key Summary of Findings”. Center for Public Deliberation, June 2020. Pg 9.
[xv] Carcasson, Martin. “Platte River Power Authority Community Focus Groups Report: Key Summary of Findings”. Center for Public Deliberation, June 2020. Pg 10.
[xvi] Carcasson, Martin. “Platte River Power Authority Community Focus Groups Report: Key Summary of Findings”. Center for Public Deliberation, June 2020. Pg 11.
[xvii] Carcasson, Martin. “Platte River Power Authority Community Focus Groups Report: Key Summary of Findings”. Center for Public Deliberation, June 2020. Pg 12.
[xix] Platte River Power Authority. “2020 Integrated Resource Plan”. 2020. Fort Collins, CO. pg. 104.