Change highlights climate conference
Colorado begins to tackle global warming

A set of solar panels puts Generation Earth Farms, located near Durango, ahead of the climate curve. The Colorado Renewable Energy Society met recently in Steamboat Springs to discuss global warming. While the long-term outlook is not good, Colorado citizens, companies and agencies are beginning to get with the times./Photo by David Halterman

by Allen Best

For a long time, it seemed the debate about global warming was moving at a – well, a glacial pace.

Then the glaciers started melting – as fast as 5 feet per hour in some places. Now, according to one speaker at a conference held on June 9 in Steamboat Springs, it looks that the North Pole could be free of ice by the end of the century.

What exactly this will do to the conveyor belt of Christmas gifts, nobody said at the annual meeting of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society, but the speaker in question, Chuck Kutscher, did allow as to how it’s time to redefine “glacial pace.”

“It’s bad, and that’s an understatement,” says Kutscher, an engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, speaking of the changing climate. “It’s caused primarily by burning fossil fuels. It’s getting worse – fast. And it’s cheaper to address it now than to pay for the consequences later. But we’re running out of time.”

Change was the theme at the conference, with reports on everything from ski area changes and rural electrical co-ops, to the profits to be made from what Kutscher called the “mother of all crises.”

Kutscher, and others, pointed out that we customarily think of our cars and trucks as energy guzzlers. In fact, 70 percent of energy is devoted to heating and lighting buildings. But while he and others are working to promote alternative energy sources, including solar, wind and biomass, the most easily attained gains are in improved efficiency of existing energy.

This idea of efficiency before renewables has been paraphrased as: You need to eat your energy efficiency vegetables first before going on to your renewable energy deserts.

Or, as Kutscher put it, “efficiency is the beef, and renewables are the sizzle.”

Improved energy efficiency, said Kutscher, can negate the growth in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, while renewables can provide the needed cut in emissions.

A similar point was made by Tom Konrad, a Denver-based economist and financial advisor who specializes in “green” investing. He advises investing in companies that specialize in energy efficiency, simply because the gains there are so large. Farther down the road, he sees gains in alternative energy.

“When Greenland melts, everybody’s going to get a lot more active with alternative energy, and your stocks are going to go up a lot quicker.” said Konrad.

Glacial pace is also being redefined in the rural electrical co-ops. Since their inception in the 1930s, the co-ops have traditionally been motivated to provide reliable electricity at the lowest cost. Coal is easily the cheapest energy.

Many of the co-ops have begun offering wind energy, but consumers have been tepid about paying higher rates, even for electricity produced without creating greenhouse gases. Steamboat Springs-based Yampa Valley Electric Association began selling credits for wind energy in 1999, but did not sell out until

January 2007. Even so, fewer than than 2 percent of the customers are in the program.

“It was a little bit disconcerting,” said the utility’s Larry Covillo, general manager. “People are talking the talk, but they’re not walking the walk,” he says. “People say they want it (renewable energy), but are they willing to pay for it? No.”

Stan Lewandowski, general manager of the Intermountain Rural Electric Association, said he is unwilling to “socialize” the currently higher cost of renewables, including electricity from solar. To the elderly people on fixed incomes, cost remains the over-riding consideration.

Lewandowski drew broad attention last year for contributing $100,000 to the work of Pat Michaels, a controversial climate scientist who argues global warming will cause relatively minor changes.

More than 100 ground-source heat pumps have been installed, tapping the relatively constant 50-degree temperature of the earth to add incremental heat in winter and cooling in summer. These sources displace the higher cost of burning propane, he said.

Another win-win, he said, is the utility’s working with local farmers to install microhydro plants, harnessing the power of falling water. The farmers get extra revenue, the community gets electricity, and “everybody wins,” said Bony.

Patty Limerick, a historian from the University of Colorado-Boulder, said the past suggests the conversion to new, non-carbon energy sources will not be smooth but may come in spurts. She expressed optimism that humanity, with its endless innovativeness, will ultimately succeed.

She traced the evolution of energy during the past 200 years. From human and animal labor and the burning of wood, humanity shifted to the burning of coal and other fossil fuels.

While the adoption of fossil fuels was “astonishing in its scale and scope of change,” she said, it did not arrive as “one, coherent sequential change.” The changes are clear in retrospect, but were not so at the time. Then – as now, she suggested – there was a clutter of information.

Street cars were electrified, replacing horses, in the late 1880s, she noted, and by the late 1890s electrification of factories had begun, a process that then accelerated at an astonishing rate during the first two decades of the 20th century. Still, on the farms, animal labor prevailed until the arrival of the tractor in about 1915.

She also noted the arrival – and then abandonment – of technology. An extraordinary number of railroads lines were laid across Colorado and then, after the mining boom ended, most of the tracks were removed.

But Limerick also warned against romanticism about the pre-fossil fuel era. Any such nostalgia, she said, is “overtly sexist.” A woman’s life before electricity was one of drudgery. If women worked just as much later, it was because standards of cleanliness were elevated.

“The most consequential question of the early 21st century is, ‘Who controls the definition of progress?’” she said. •

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