Burning up 

No relief in sight for rocketing gas, energy costs

click to enlarge Mike Loop, sales manager at Sportique Scooters, says - high gas costs have consumers buying scooters as fast - as he can stock them. - DAN WILCOCK
  • Dan Wilcock
  • Mike Loop, sales manager at Sportique Scooters, says high gas costs have consumers buying scooters as fast as he can stock them.

With prices soaring for gasoline at the pump, and huge increases projected for natural gas and heating oil this winter, the market for more efficient alternatives is heating up.

This week, the average price of regular unleaded gas stood at about $2.85 in Colorado Springs, a 56 percent increase since last year, according to AAA.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's damaging Gulf Coast refineries, the price for natural gas used for winter heating is expected to be between 37 and 50 percent higher than last year's, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Such realities are forcing many to think long and hard about America's long-term reliance on fossil fuels, and to ask for alternatives, including more efficient vehicles and cleaner energy derived from wind, water or the sun.

"It was almost like a psychological switch," says Mike Loop, the sales manager at Sportique Scooters in Colorado Springs. In late summer, droves of customers began arriving at his business complaining about having to spend more than $60 on a tank of gas. "It was like, bam -- people couldn't deal with it."

Many scooters get more than 90 miles to the gallon, and Loop reports that he's been selling four or five a day, a number that used to signify good sales over the course of a week. Other consumers have ditched their gas-guzzling SUVs for compact sedans with eco-friendly hybrid engines.

But when it comes to energy used to heat homes, making a switch isn't so simple. In fact, it took a statewide referendum last year to force many Front Range energy providers, including Colorado Springs Utilities and Xcel Energy, to boost production of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power.

Voters approved Amendment 37 last November, mandating that the state's energy providers increase renewable energy to 10 percent of their total output over the next decade. Both CSU and Xcel opposed the measure, claiming high costs.

Officials at Xcel now predict a 35 percent increase in winter gas heating bills.

Colorado Springs Utilities says its customers will avoid a similar pinch.

"We buy in advance," says Drew Rankin, CSU's general manager for energy supply. The utility purchased more than 80 percent of the natural gas needed for this winter before prices shot up, he says.

But, he adds, "If gas prices stay high, the economics of some renewables does improve."

This kind of calculation is occurring across the country, says Tom Zwirlein, a professor of finance at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He says it can be seen in the booming demand for wind turbines.

"[Higher gas prices are] both a blessing and a curse for environmentalists," Zwirlein says, pointing to the simultaneous booms in alternative energy usage and fossil fuel exploration across the West.

The number of oil and gas drilling applications broke Colorado records this year, according to the state's Department of Natural Resources. Environmentalists say more drilling will just lead to further price instability.

-- Dan Wilcock


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