Renewable energy hopes to hear more from Hickenlooper

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s support for renewable energy development has left some in the industry underwhelmed.

Hickenlooper’s predecessor, Bill Ritter, spearheaded multiple initiatives to encourage renewable energy development during his single term. Hickenlooper came into office saying he would continue Ritter’s efforts. But those in the business aren’t so sure. They point out that:

> Ritter signed more than 50 bills dealing with renewable energy during his four years as governor. Hickenlooper, now in his second year, has signed few of those kinds of bills.

> Fewer renewable energy companies have announced moves or established themselves in Colorado during the Hickenlooper administration.

“Gov. Ritter was truly a national leader on renewable energy,´ said Jeff Hohensee, director of strategic partnerships for the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, a nonpartisan environmental group. “It’s one of the reasons why Colorado continues to be viewed as an innovation hub.”

While governor, Ritter signed 57 renewable energy bills and helped create thousands of jobs as companies like Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas established operations in Colorado.

Hickenlooper “needs to use his charismatic leadership to continue those successes,´ said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Conservation Voters, which aims to elect pro-environment candidates.

Conservationists and renewable industry representatives could name only one significant renewable energy measure signed by Hickenlooper.

That bill, the Fair Permit Act, limits permitting fees for solar projects. The law caps solar permits fees at $1,000 for commercial projects and $500 for residential projects.

“That was an innovative approach to help reign in the rising permit fees that customers face when seeking to go solar,´ said Neal Lurie, executive director of Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association.

In Hickenlooper’s defense, Lurie said there’s less federal stimulus funding available for renewable projects.

And fewer renewable energy bills have moved through the legislature during his more than a year in office. The state House currently lacks a pro-conservation majority.

The Governor’s Energy Office has itself pointed out the lack of enthusiasm for energy legislation. It also cites tight funding, though it asserts Hickenlooper is as committed to alternatives as was Ritter.

Meanwhile, bills dealing with fossil fuels have dominated the Legislature’s actions on energy, Maysmith said.

“Gov. Hickenlooper is yoked to a very different legislature than Gov. Ritter was when it comes to renewable energy issues,” Maysmith said.

But Hickenlooper, a one-time petroleum geologist, also has not called for as many bills as Ritter, he said.

“This governor has put a lot of attention into oil and gas issues,” Maysmith said.

That has helped when the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission required oil and gas operators to publicly disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, he said.

Other times, that engagement “has been a lot less helpful,” he said.

Hickenlooper recently irked environmentalists with comments in a Colorado Oil & Gas Association radio ad. In the ad, he said the state has “not had one instance of groundwater contamination associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing.”

Contending that some spills have contaminated surface and ground water, environmental groups called for Hickenlooper to pull the ad. The governor apologized, saying that his administration should have “reached out to the environmental community and asked if they were okay with the language.”

Disappointment in Hickenlooper’s record on renewables extends beyond those remarks and the lack of bills.

Roger Alexander, owner of Sirius Energy Solutions, a Fort Collins solar power company, said the governor has done little to promote renewables.

“It’s certainly not on the front burner of Hickenlooper’s policy objectives,” he said.

More political support would be welcome at a time when the renewable industry at large is having a tough time.

In Northern Colorado, larger companies like Vestas and Abound Solar have recently announced layoffs.

Abound Solar, based in Loveland, said it would temporarily lay off 180 people, most of its workforce, while it retools its latest solar panel technology.

Vestas, which employs 750 people at a plant in Windsor, has threatened to cut 1,600 U.S. jobs if Congress does not extend a wind production tax credit set to expire at the end of the year.

The U.S. Senate voted down the tax credit earlier this month, though efforts were under way to attach the credit to another bill.

While Hickenlooper joined a bipartisan group of governors nationwide that has called for extension of the tax credit, he may not have much influence over the situation.

People in the industry want to see Hickenlooper pursue more “Colorado-specific” initiatives.

Hickenlooper has had some successes in renewable energy, including moving General Electric’s PrimeStar Solar plant to Aurora, industry representatives and conservationists said.

The Hickenlooper administration also helped Xcel and the solar power industry reach an agreement that was a “mostly positive resolution” on rebates that the utility had sought to reduce, Maysmith said.

In addition, Hickenlooper has brought disparate groups together in an oil and natural gas task force aimed at helping clarify regulatory jurisdiction between state and local governments, Hohensee said. Its members include government officials and member of an industry association and environmental group.

Hohensee hopes Hickenlooper will use his ability to bring people together to do more in the future. He said such a plan could look like Greenprint Denver, when, as mayor, Hickenlooper joined nearly 50 other mayors nationwide in a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“That’s what we really look for Gov. Hickenlooper to do: articulate a long-term energy plan that promotes energy efficiency and renewables,” he said.

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