Colorado lawmakers prep legislation to limit local power over wind and solar projects

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The East Field Array of solar panels beside Xcel Energy’s Comanche Generating Station. Pueblo, Colorado, Jan. 30, 2024.

Colorado lawmakers are drafting legislation to ensure local governments can’t derail the state’s ambitious plans to transition to carbon-free energy sources like wind and solar.

While Democratic lawmakers are still finalizing the bill, an early version obtained by CPR News shows legislators want to set up a standardized process for local governments considering renewable energy projects. 

It would also limit potential rules to restrict the development of wind and solar farms and other projects like electric transmission lines. The upcoming legislation, for example, would ban cities or counties from requiring more than 150 feet of space between occupied buildings and solar energy facilities. Any moratorium on renewable energy projects also couldn’t exceed six months.

State Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, expects to introduce the bill in the next few weeks. In an interview, he said the proposal isn’t meant to strip local governments of their traditional authority over commercial development but will ensure essential infrastructure projects have a clear path forward.

“This is one of those critical moments where you can see billions of dollars of investment coming, and so it’s really important that we get ready,” Hansen said. 

After months of discussions with local governments and energy companies, he insisted the current concept is to enlist state resources to “support” local governments considering new construction permits. 

That could include state wildlife experts ready to analyze potential habitat impacts and requiring developers to have plans to decommission projects at the end of their lifespan. 

The upcoming bill will nevertheless pit climate advocates against some local voices who oppose clean energy projects in rural communities. A recent report from the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University found local governments across 35 states have approved at least 228 restrictions on renewable energy development. 

In Colorado, many communities have approved friendlier rules to guide the development of renewable energy, which often helps provide a healthy property tax base for schools and other public services. One exception is Washington County in northeastern Colorado, which has aligned with residents and groups pushing back against new clean energy developments. In 2021, the county approved some of the state’s toughest regulations on renewable energy projects, including one-mile spacing between structures and new wind turbines. 

Residents in southern and southwest Colorado have also successfully scuttled several proposed solar projects by citing concerns about property values, traffic and wildlife impacts. 

Opponents are already lining up to oppose the legislation. 

One region primed for renewable energy development is Colorado’s Eastern Plains. 

Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest investor-owned utility, has already won approval for its Colorado Power Pathway, a $1.7 billion plan to encircle the area with 610 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that will ferry electricity from wind and solar farms to the grid.

Regulators are also in the final stages of considering a $15 billion portfolio of new generation and energy storage projects, which would allow the company to meet a state mandate to cut its climate-warming emissions by 80 percent by 2030. Many of those projects will link to the utility’s future transmission network, which would then deliver clean power from the Eastern Plains to the Front Range.

Kerry Jiblits, a retired teacher living near Kiowa, fears Xcel Energy’s proposed transmission system threatens the Bijou Basin, a broad valley in Elbert County packed with forests and wetlands. She founded the Elbert County Environmental Alliance to advocate for an alternative route for the project. 

Even before its official introduction, the group has already come out against Hansen’s upcoming legislation. 

“The state would be usurping local control, and rural citizens would lose their voice and their ability to affect and protect their environment,” Jiblits said.  “A ‘one size fits all’ approach to land use is inappropriate. What might make sense in one county would destroy another.”

Kent Vance, a Washington County commissioner, said the proposed legislation resembles Gov. Jared Polis’ approach to housing. To increase Colorado’s overall supply, his administration is currently pushing legislation to force communities to allow accessory dwelling units, also known as granny flats. 

“This bill to me looks like a stepping stone to claw in land use codes in general to the state,” Vance said.

Other states with ambitious climate goals have passed similar legislation. 

If Colorado lawmakers approve the proposal, it would join New York, California and Illinois in enacting policies that limit local control over renewable energy projects.

Michigan approved an especially controversial version last November. Its new law handed state utility regulators the power to approve large-scale renewable energy projects over local objections. Opponents are now moving ahead with a petition to repeal the law through a ballot initiative this November. 

Hansen says the upcoming legislation would take a less contentious approach. While earlier versions resembled the legislation passed in Michigan, he says careful collaboration with local communities and energy experts has guided lawmakers toward a more moderate approach. 

But local government advocates say they have been mostly left out of those discussions. Kevin Bommer, the executive director for the Colorado Municipal League, said his organization participated in a meeting on the issue last year, but it hasn’t been heavily involved since then.

“If the intent was to include CML in the discussion and drafting of legislation that may impact our 270 member cities and towns, that hasn’t happened,” Bommer said. 

It’s clear Hansen has one major ally in the upcoming fight: Polis. In his State of the State speech opening the 2024 legislation session, the governor encouraged lawmakers to “cut red tape” holding back investments in clean energy, transmission and carbon storage projects.

Joe Wertz contributed to this report.