In my February column, I wrote that we need to watch how policies of the newly elected president might affect our economic vitality. One area I cited was energy and the environment, because we have a concentration of federally funded labs, a major research university, and a number of businesses focused on environmental and energy matters. Aside from also being economic assets, the work in these institutions is helping us better understand and respond to the potentially devastating impacts of climate change.
Now we know that the president has proposed drastic federal cuts in climate science programs. Though Boulder businesses have long supported efforts to promote planet-friendly research and practices, we now need to step up our game and join an increasing chorus of corporate leaders speaking up for responsible social and economic policies. At the same time, we must forge ahead with the types of public/private partnerships that have been a hallmark of Boulder’s commitment to climate science and ancillary business activity.
Boulder’s economy includes a wide variety of innovative industries, but we are especially recognized for our leadership in climate, weather, geophysical, and renewable energy research. Consistent with that leadership position, Boulder County-based laboratories and research facilities receive significant funding from the Departments of Energy, Commerce, and NASA. Moreover, we enjoy numerous secondary, or multiplier, effects from these direct investments in advanced industries such as renewables. For instance, employment in our federally funded research centers supports other jobs in transportation, utilities, goods and services in the community. Beyond the impact of direct federal financial funding, significant investments in research and development are committed by Boulder companies in related industries. In cleantech, for example, the Boulder MSA included 285 firms in 2015 with over 3,700 employees, more than 3-1/2 times the U.S. average concentration of such skilled workers.
Thus, Boulder’s economic vitality depends to a great extent on our commitment to climate and energy-related research and development, funded through both government and private sources. For these economic reasons alone, we should fight proposed cuts to climate science and energy programs. Fortunately, our national elected leaders have spoken out. In a demonstration of bipartisan interest, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, vice chair of the Congressional Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition; Sen. Cory Gardner; and Sen. Michael Bennet have worked to oppose the budget cuts and maintain critical Colorado-based programs. The Boulder Chamber and its membership also made our position clear on these matters through direct appeals to the Trump administration.
At the same time that we fight to secure current federal funding for climate science and alternative energy programming, though, we must also pursue other creative avenues to sustain our work in these areas. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, for one, has opined that although Colorado cannot afford to replace all the environmental programs that could suffer from Trump’s proposed budget cuts, he believes there are opportunities for continued progress amidst the administration’s energy plans. He has noted that the Trump administration may focus federal money on early stage applied research and let states and the private sector take on more of the development. In Colorado, that kind of effort is already underway through the Colorado Innovation Network and other sources. The City of Boulder also has been doing great work to encourage public/private partnership in the energy efficiency and alternative energy fields. This includes direct grants for the development of promising technologies and expert consultation services.
The Boulder Chamber has always believed in public/private collaborations where they make sense, and this is a place where they do. We already have a variety of local examples where our member business and nonprofit organizations are stepping-up to support alternative energy initiatives: Wells Fargo works with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in support of an Innovation Incubator to advance emerging clean technologies and startup companies; Elevations Credit Union’s Foundation makes direct grants to promote environmental education and sustainability; and, CU Boulder and NREL jointly manage the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, which conducts research, education and private industry partnerships in an interdisciplinary approach to solving complex problems in energy science.
This is an historic moment—a tipping point—for our planet’s future, and Boulder’s businesses are at the forefront of creating a brighter one. Federal funding has been critical to advancing our energy efficiency and alternative energy goals, so we must continue to press for those sustained resources. Regardless of the direction those budget battles take, we must continue to support public/private initiatives in these fields. Our economy and our climate depend on it.