Renewable energy fuels Colorado governor

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Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) is not the only governor who has championed renewable energy. But he began earlier, took up the issue more forcefully than most and has managed to turn it into a winning issue for a wide swath of Colorado voters.

Voters approved the measure after the General Assembly, then controlled by the Republicans, bottled up efforts to pass similar legislation.

At the time, the state’s leading utility, Xcel Energy, opposed the ballot measure, which required that 10 percent of the energy used by utilities comes from renewable sources by 2015. But shortly after voters passed the measure, the company got to work on implementing the new requirement.

It went so well that Xcel and the newly elected governor soon teamed up on legislation to double the requirement, to 20 percent renewable by 2020. That passed the legislature, by then in Democratic hands, by a wide, bipartisan margin. Since then, Xcel and the governor have continued to work together on setting new energy-related goals.

“You learn things as you go,” said Frank Prager, Xcel’s vice president for environmental policy. “We were able to meet the requirements at the end of last year, eight years prior to the mandate. That’s why when the governor came in and proposed doubling the standard, we were supportive.”

Xcel — which serves about 70 percent of the Colorado market and also provides electricity to parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Texas and New Mexico — is now the number-one wind provider among utilities in the nation and ranks fifth in solar energy.

Ritter touts renewables as a triple win, offering the state a more diversified energy base, a cleaner environment and a way to create new, high-paying jobs in research, design and manufacturing. And the current concern over high gasoline prices, which hit a new peak well after Ritter had helped make renewables a big issue in Colorado, has only increased the urgency of his crusade.

To be sure, Ritter’s administration hasn’t been free of turbulence. His unionization of state workers sparked a major backlash, especially among Republicans, and his efforts to hike the severance tax on oil and gas drilling — and to plow the revenues into a number of other areas, including renewables — has inspired a fierce and well-funded counterattack from the oil and gas industry.

All told, his approval rating has ranged from the 40s to near 60 percent. But even when it’s been down, there is wide agreement here that his focus on developing renewable energy has been one of his strongest suits.

“It’s a shining star of his administration so far,” said Bill Kaufman, a formerRepublican state House Speaker Pro-Tem and ex-chairman of the Republican Party of Larimer County, which includes Loveland.

Renewables are no longer the province of liberals, if they ever were. “Renewable energy has become the cornerstone of each major political party’s agenda,” state Sen. Brandon Shaffer (D) said. “This is a result of Gov. Ritter’s leadership.”

Seth Masket, a delegate to the Democratic convention, sees the bipartisan support Ritter has received on renewable energy as natural, given Colorado’s economic situation.

“There are a lot of Republican landowners in the mountains who recognize that if there is too much environmental damage, people will stop visiting, and the economy will be hurt,” he said.

In addition, Colorado has a mix of resources that make it well-suited to become a renewable energy hub. The state’s dry, windswept plains are perfect for wind turbines and solar panels, and it has a populous hub — the Denver-Boulder-Fort Collins corridor — that offers strong academic research institutions and a well-educated workforce.

Already, Vestas, the Danish windmill giant, has begun dotting the state with new facilities, creating upwards of 2,500 jobs. That has helped ease doubts about renewable energy’s ability to produce tangible economic results.

“People see a potential for realistic economic growth,” said Glen Andersen, an energy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Other states have moved aggressively on renewables as well. More than half of states now have some form of minimum requirement for utilities to use renewable energy.

In Hawaii, where the state’s remote location means high prices for traditional fuels, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle has worked with the Democratic legislature to pass a requirement that all new homes have solar panels beginning in 2010. She also signed a bill that would provide low-interest loans to farmers who develop their own energy systems. Other bills would accelerate the process for building renewable energy facilities.

And in Minnesota — home of next week’s Republican National Convention and a Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty — the state is shooting for 30 percent renewables by 2025. Specialists credit Pawlenty as being a champion of renewables, just like Ritter.

Still, Colorado faces challenges in its quest to expand the use of renewable energy. Besides the obvious technical obstacles to making renewables as economical as traditional energy sources, Colorado is seeing population growth and expanding development, exemplified by a massive, upscale complex here in Loveland called Centerra that sprang up quickly in the high plains. Such expansion means that the new renewable goals must also account for future population growth and energy demand.

And politically, while support for renewables here is broad, it is not necessarily a guarantee of re-election by itself. “I think renewables have been popular, but I’m not sure of where it ranks for voters when they cast their ballot,” Bob Duffy, a Colorado State University political scientist, said in an interview here.

Other staples of state policy, such as taxes, spending and education, are expected to be uppermost in voters’ minds at election time, and analysts say Ritter will have to earn good marks on those issues to win a second term in 2010. That’s no easy assignment, given the state’s precarious budget situation.

“If I were a governor,” said University of Colorado political scientist E. Scott Adler, “I wouldn’t want to run on energy.”

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