State Sen. Johnston, conservation groups target energy efficiency bills in budget-challenged legislature

By David O. Williams
Real AspenJanuary 24, 2011
State Sen. Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat originally from Vail, plans to introduce at least three energy bills during the current legislative session – all aimed at increasing efficiency and promoting renewable energy sources.

One bill currently being negotiated is a plan to get utilities to loan homeowners money for energy efficiency upgrades to their homes – loans that would be paid back over time on the homeowner's utility bill. Johnston explains what he would like to see in such a bill:

“If you are paying $300 a month in utilities, an audit might find that you could drop your bill to $200 if you invested $4,000 in a new furnace, insulation, and windows,” Johnston wrote in a newsletter. “Under my legislation, the utility would provide the up-front $4,000 to get the work done, your bill drops from $300 to $200 as a result, and then you pay $250 a month on your bill, where the extra $50 goes to repay the loan. “

Johnston plans to introduce two other energy bills this session, including one that would require greater disclosure of the energy consumption history of a commercial property, so that buyers can determine the relative efficiency of the property.

“If you've ever leased or purchased a commercial property, you know that the single largest ongoing cost you have with that property will be your utility costs,” Johnston said. “Yet when you make the deal for that property, you have no idea what kind of energy use that property will get. This would be like buying a car with no concept of the car's fuel efficiency, or what your annual fuel costs would be for that vehicle. “

Finally, Johnston wants to see legislation passed that would streamline and simplify the process for locating and permitting transmission lines to rural areas that are ideal for wind and solar energy production but underserved by adequate transmission capacity.

Colorado conservation groups support the concepts behind Johnston's proposals and plan to hold the line on environmental gains made over the past several years while still advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in what they admit will be a challenging fiscal climate.

“There is a budget reality that is clear that the legislature will need to spend more time than it has in the past years dealing with … absolutely,” said Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. “But the new governor [Democrat John Hickenlooper] shares a strong environmental ethic with the Colorado voters on the need to keep Colorado's natural competitive advantage, which is what you see when you look out the window and what you drink when you turn on the tap.”

Jones says the conservation community's focus will be on how the clean energy sector has been a bright spot in the current economic downturn, actually creating thousands of jobs and supporting nearly 2,000 businesses.

“[Clean air and water] are the things that make Colorado competitive and attractive to new businesses, attractive to tourists, and is really the backbone of our long-term prosperity,” Jones said. “This governor gets it, and I think lawmakers continue to understand that as well.”

The “New Energy Economy” was the dominant focus of Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter's administration over the past four years, and there were major environmental and energy policy changes during that period, including upping the state's renewable energy standard to the second highest in the nation (30 percent by 2020) last legislative session. Also, the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act, which enjoyed some bipartisan support, set up a framework for shutting down aging coal-fired power plants and replacing them with natural gas or renewable energy sources.

There have been some signs Republicans, who now control the state House by a one-seat margin, will try to roll back some of Ritter's energy and environmental policies. GOP lawmakers have been highly critical of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, a three-member regulatory board appointed by the governor, because of Clean Air, Clean Jobs. And there are now calls for an independent audit of the board's policy decisions.

But with Democrats still controlling the state Senate and the governor's office, Jones and others hope to not only stave off policy rollbacks but also advance the clean-energy cause.

“I would try not to necessarily point a partisan finger at all,” Jones said. “We're going to be working to make sure there are no rollbacks period, because that's not what Coloradans want, that's not what will be best for our economy. A lot of the gains that we've seen in economic recovery have been made on the back of the progress that we've made on clean energy, and why would we want to go backwards on that? We don't.”

Environmental groups also plan to target the dumping of electronic waste, including computers and televisions, into Colorado landfills, promoting recycling they say will create more jobs. The state in 2008 produced more than 50,000 tons of electronic waste, and less than 7 percent of it (8,000 tons) was recycled. The groups are working with lawmakers on a bill that would require manufacturers to take more responsibility for electronic waste.

“It's time Colorado catches up with 23 other states that already have this type of legislation in place,” Marjorie Griek, executive director of Colorado Association for Recycling, said in a release. “This initiative will clean up our environment and create more recycling jobs in Colorado. Requiring manufacturers to be responsible for recycling their products will prevent contamination of our air, water and land, and ensure citizens that their electronic waste is recycled in a safe and responsible manner.”

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