As the nation struggles to recover from the devastating effects of COVID-19 we consider how a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewables could contribute to an equitable and resilient economy going forward.

Moderator and youth climate activist Phoebe Dominguez shared her motivation for getting involved in the climate movement. Born from a love of her home state of Colorado she wants her own and future generations “to have a chance to look around and see lark bunting, I want them to see blue spruce, I want them to see mountain goats, I want them to look around at the beauties of Colorado.”

Phoebe introduced Marie Venner of Together Colorado who outlined the risks posed by climate change and fossil fuels. Reminding us that Colorado is already 20 years into a long term drought that NASA scientists compare to the dust bowl of the 1930’s. Ms. Venner wondered what her farming ancestors would say about that.

Dispelling myths that air quality regulations are problematic or too expensive Ms. Venner pointed out that health benefits far outweigh costs. Not only does clean air reduce asthma and other respiratory problems but noting more recent research she revealed that particles and toxins in air correlate to deadly inflammatory illnesses. Remarking that these costly, major illnesses reduce life expectancy by three years on average but for disadvantaged communities it can be about ten years. She concluded by describing her work to accelerate the retirement of coal-fired power plants in Colorado.

Next up was sustainability expert Catherine Greener of Greener Solutions Inc. She currently serves as the primary facilitator for the Alliance Center’s Emergent Series. Convening experts on climate, finance and democracy a report will be presented to the Polis administration in September highlighting top strategies and implementation plans for a just recovery. Ms. Greener described a series of collaborative sessions on topics such as climate & energy, food systems, democracy, economic & workforce development, infrastructure & transportation, and synthesis/transformation.

Looking for areas of opportunity among “broken and fragile systems” revealed by this crisis the group saw a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion as the first step in a just transition. “Where the environment is protected, jobs are created, where democracy is at its strongest and communities can thrive.”

Ms. Greener spoke about the group’s desire to develop a narrative that that works for all because “an electron has no political affiliation.” Prioritizing decentralized and local solutions is a narrative that works on both sides of the aisle. Key to this effort is an urgent transition to renewable energy including electrification not only on the generation side, also homes and the transportation system while using existing infrastructure to move forward.

In a nod to energy efficiency Ms. Greener deferred to her fellow panelists from RMI with the reminder that “the best energy is the energy you don’t ever use.”

Dr. Chaz Teplin, a clean energy economics expert from Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) presented a carbon budget that shows we only have ten years to drastically reduce carbon emissions to avoid the most dire consequences of climate change. And while he and others have been warning about climate change for decades he says now things are different. Today five key technologies are available and cost effective: Wind and solar are the cheapest sources of energy. Battery storage provides cost-effective grid balancing. Electric vehicles are comparable in cost to gas powered vehicles. Heat pumps are lower cost for new buildings.

In order for Colorado to meet its climate goals, Mr. Teplin said multiple green-house gas reduction studies have generally come to the same conclusions;

  • Transport: All new cars sold after 2035 must be electric.
  • Buildings: Replace fossil fuel furnaces with heat pumps.
  • Industry: Convert heavy transport and industry to biofuels.
  • Oil & Gas: Reduce methane leaks from fracking and coal.
  • Electricity: Deploy large-scale wind, solar and storage.

Courtney Fieldman, electrification expert at RMI and coauthor of US Stimulus Strategy: Recommendations for a Zero-Carbon Economic Recovery then showed how the state is not on track to meet its climate goals. She said that in order to meet those goals we need to electrify now;

  • Stop expanding the gas system and transition to 100% electric for all new buildings by 2025.
  • Prioritize electrification and efficiency programs for low and medium income communities.
  • Replace gas appliances in existing homes with energy efficient electric appliances while avoiding fuel-switching such as “renewable natural gas.”
  • Create a market with contractor training and incentives for emerging technology.

Ms. Fieldman emphasized that “the next one to five years are a critical window to start facilitating a transition away from gas.” Highlighting the climate, health and economic benefits of electrification she explained how this transition can actually save lives through better air quality and create about 70,000 jobs in Colorado alone.

Referring to COVID she said “its really important to recognize the moment we’re in” and invest in better buildings, not fossil fuels that will become stranded assets. Nationwide, RMI estimates that investments in electrification can unlock significant economic and environmental benefits;

  • 555 million tons of CO2 emissions avoided
  • 2.8 million jobs in key economic sectors
  • $148 billion in consumer energy savings
  • 62 million American lives improved

Dr. Teplin concluded RMI’s presentation by pointing out that “even if we transitioned the grid to zero overnight, we’d still have three-quarters of the problem left over. We absolutely must begin electrification in buildings ASAP and we need to transition to electric vehicles. Ideally building more housing in dense areas so we can drive less as well.”In reply

When asked about the single most important thing needed in a just transition to renewable energy Ms. Greener replied that its “a system problem that needs a system solution” Second to shutting down coal plants, “legislation to get Xcel off that old, financially un-viable model into a local, distributed renewable model” and to electrify now while decreasing demand. Other panelists added;

  • Local investment that provides income to communities.
  • Government investment in zero carbon infrastructure and technologies.

When asked about the environmental consequences of large-scale renewable deployment. Dr. Teplin replied that “the ecological impacts are not going to be zero but I’d argue that its dramatically smaller than the fossil fuel infrastructure that it will be replacing.”

Ms. Greener added “Sustainability is an imperfect journey and you have to make trade-off’s… Thinking about the life cycle, whether it be a battery, or a solar panel is important and it can be solved. We need to think circularly in this and get away from a take, make, use, waste model… There are consequences but they are significantly less bad then if we continued on the current path.”

Finally, when asked about how can these programs be financed, panelists pointed to the unique social and economic circumstances;

  • Near-zero interest rates, local banking
  • Federal stimulus money
  • Debt financing on stranded assets
  • Align with shifting commuter and real estate trends

On behalf of the 350 CO renewable energy committee I’d like to thank Phoebe and all of our panelists for a compelling and I dare say hopeful vision of renewable energy as a cornerstone of a just and sustainable economy.

Ron Bennett, AIA