The Clean Energy Conversation Is “Big At The Capitol,” And At Home In Boulder, Colorado.

On the morning of Saturday, January 25th, nearly 100 Boulder residents gathered at the West Boulder Senior Center to hear political leaders update the Boulder community about ongoing efforts to address climate change at the city, county and state level in Colorado. The Mayor’s Community Conversation on Climate and Local Clean Energy was a hopeful yet serious event where residents and public officials reviewed climate policy progress and assessed pathways towards a low-carbon future. One theme throughout the day was clear: Colorado’s leaders deserve credit for the tremendous work they are doing to tackle climate change. 

Mayor Sam Weaver facilitated the event which featured presentations by high-profile leaders that have moved the needle on climate change in Colorado.  The speakers included two City Council members, one state Senator, two state Representatives, the Boulder County Commissioner, and an editor from HOMER Microgrid News. 

Local leaders pose for a picture Junie Joseph, Steve Fenberg, Sam Weaver, KC Becker, Mary Young, and Edie Hooton.

The Mayor’s Address

The mini-conference began with a warm welcome from Mayor Weaver followed by a discussion of the most impactful climate solutions, published by Project Drawdown.  The Mayor joked about being known as the “refrigerant guy” due to his personal interest in tackling refrigerant management issues. He cited Boulder’s current integration of 60% local renewable energy, which will increase dramatically if the city proceeds with municipalization efforts.

Mayor Weaver brought specific attention to food waste, another high-impact climate change mitigator. “We are missing something,” he noted. “We’re doing composting more than ever, and the work of Eco-Cycle has been instrumental in our progress, but it’s not enough. It starts with putting less food on your plate.” 

A table included in Sam Weaver’s presentation, from Project Drawdown

Climate Action at the State Level in Colorado

Next, State Senator Steve Fenberg, Speaker of the House KC Becker, and Representative Edie Hooton reviewed the sweeping legislation passed in 2019. The 2019 ‘democratic trifecta,’ when three legislative bodies are run by Democrat majorities, accomplished “the most accomplished legislative session, perhaps in the whole country.”

Key bills referenced included: 

  • SB 181, to regulate oil and gas in Colorado through rulemakings from the CO O&G and air quality control group
  • HB 1261, to place state climate goals in statute, including periodic reports and analyses
  • SB 96, to establish means for tracking greenhouse gas emissions data via the AQCC
  • SB 236, to prevent the ‘sunset’ expiration of the public utilities commission. Also directed the Colorado PUC to regulate and consider the social cost of carbon, distribution system planning (including storage options), and codified Xcel’s commitment to 100% clean energy by 2050
  • HB 1314, to create a “just” transition from a coal-based electric economy, to facilitate job training

Although the state’s role in the Just Transition Bill is yet to be determined, the legislation attracted interest from neighboring states. Speaker Becker also described Tri-State’s request for a “carve-out” exemption from climate commitments in HB 1261. This January, several months after the legislature denied the request, Tri-State independently outlined an initiative for early coal plant retirement in its Responsible Energy Plan

Representative Fenberg commented that, “Big picture bills were passed last year – now we’re getting into the nitty gritty.” He described electrification bills, oil and gas rulemakings, air monitoring, and adaptation and mitigation bills at the top of the Senate’s list this year. Representative Hooton discussed her recently-introduced Community Choice Energy study bill, HB 1064. This legislation directs the PUC to evaluate the implications of community choice, which allows communities to arrange independent contracts with electricity generators. Representative Hooton called the process “disruptive; the idea of even studying the impact of disrupting the investor-owned utility model is very chilling to a number of groups.” Other upcoming legislation includes a single-use plastics ban, a pesticides ban, support for “greening” buildings, and new energy procurements. 

Becker expressed excitement about a growing focus on climate action at the state level.   “It’s incredible to see how big the energy conversation is at the capitol,” she stated. “It went from very niche conversations to a big, collaborative issue in the last year.”  At the same time, legislators acknowledged the majority of the work in transforming our energy system lies ahead of us.

Micah Parkin, Executive Director of 350 Colorado talks to interested citizens in the lobby

City and County Climate Action

The legislators’ portion was followed by an address from City Council members Junie Joseph and Mary Young, who spoke on city plans to support equity and just transition issues. The council members noted that Boulder is an economically disparate city, with deep equity issues in its presence. “The City of Boulder recognizes that our Climate Mobilization Action Plan goals must go beyond just closing the gap. We must establish a corporate benchmark that lifts all populations, while paying close attention to those often excluded or impacted,” Junie Joseph commented.

Mary Young elaborated on a just transition: “The focus should really be on talking to trade and labor unions… We want to focus on putting solar panels on roofs, but wouldn’t it be better to focus on solar gardens? Those are accessible to everyone.” 

Next, Lili Francklyn, editor of HOMER Microgrid News, provided a presentation on microgrid success stories in the U.S., chronicling energy savings and the benefits of local, closed systems of energy generation and use. “Now, microgrids are competitive with other types of energy generation,” she stated. The presentation offered a promising future for localized energy systems.

Elise Jones provides an update on Colorado’s fracking legislation and activity

Elise Jones, Boulder County Commissioner, followed with a  presentation on fracking in Colorado, and the audience edged towards the tip of their seats as the Commissioner showed maps of fracking plans from around the state. The Commissioner provided data on air quality issues that travel over county lines, giving Boulder air a grade “F” according to the American Lung Association. In December 2019, the EPA reclassified Colorado as a “serious” violator of federal air quality laws, and the state was directed to cut its emissions in half by 2021. 

Mayor Weaver took the stage as the day’s last presenter, delivering a session on community power and energy democracy. Standing in front of a picture of a California wildfire, he cited PG&E’s 1,500 wildfires in six years and $12 billion losses. He questioned, “How do we know what the state of our transmission system is? What about third party audits?… This issue is shifting closer to home. I can hear a transformer explode outside of my house once every five months.” He urged the city to be proactive, and to localize its power sources to proactively protect Boulder from the pitfalls of corporate-owned infrastructure issues.

Mayor Weaver compares California fires to Boulder fires, warns of repeated tragedy

Community Members Discuss Amongst Themselves

The day closed with the creation of five breakout groups. Below is a description of each group and what the conversation that ensued:

  • Community Choice Energy: The community choice energy group encouraged the audience to visit Leslie Glustrom chimed in, “This is the fundamental question: Is the monopoly going to bring us the optimal solutions; are they going to get us there fast enough, at a reasonable price, or is there a way to allow those thousands of bids on solar that have been backed up for years out? As one engineer said, we should build out in parallel, instead of slowly.”
  • Microgrids: This group discussed legal barriers to microgrids as well as advanced meter usage, data issues, and EV charging stations along I-70.
  • Energy Democracy: This group discussed municipalization at length, taking information from  David Cockrell of Pueblo’s Energy Future. The group questioned: If the city created a municipalization, what would the governmental body that accepts citizen input look like? Who would be part of the city’s effort? The group also defined the distinction between a CCA (in which the city would purchase electricity from a generator of their choosing) and municipally-owned utility (in which the city owns and operates its own utility).
  • Fracking in Boulder County: This group covered a variety of topics, including the removal of state control over local energy decisions via SB 181; an example of this was when the Colorado Supreme Court invalidated Longmont and Fort Collins fracking moratoriums in 2016. The group noted that the Longmont ban is going back to the courts. Several advocacy groups joined this discussion, and emphasized the need for collaboration on legislation. 
  • Youth Climate Action:  This group was led by two students at Fairview Highschool. The group discussed Fairview’s sustainability programs and a vision of increased renewable generation in Boulder County schools.

The crowd concluded the day with extended conversation in the lobby on ways to get involved. The event highlighted the impressive steps that Colorado is taking towards climate change mitigation, and similarly shed light on pending concerns. One clear takeaway for all attendees was that our leaders are clearly taking action to fight climate change, and that the policy landscape will continue to morph as climate change accelerates on the Front Range.

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