A piece largely referencing Boulder, talking about cities trying to wrest control of their electricity systems from major utilities. At this point I think I’ll probably find any media coverage of this process hopelessly one dimensional, but still, it’s nice to know they care.
With this year’s expiration of the Kyoto Protocol and our Climate Action Plan (CAP) tax, the city of Boulder is looking to the future, trying to come up with an appropriate longer term climate action framework, and the necessary funding to support it. To this end there’s going to be a measure on the ballot this fall to extend the CAP tax. I’m glad that we’re talking about this within the city (and county), because at the state and national level, the issue seems to have faded into the background. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. This year’s wildfires, the continuing drought that’s decimating the corn and soybean harvests, and the phenomenal 2012 arctic melt season are just appetizers. If the last decade’s trend holds true, we’ll have an ice-free arctic ocean some September between 2015 and 2020.
The major sources of emissions, broadly, are electricity generation, transportation, the built environment (space heating, cooling, hot water, lighting), agriculture, and industry (the embodied energy of all the stuff we buy, use, and then frequently discard). The extent to which local government can impact these areas varies. We interface with embodied energy most directly when it comes to disposal and at that point, the materials have already been made. Similarly, most of our food comes from outside the region. Our most ambitious project so far has been the exploration of creating a low-carbon municipal utility. We’ve also potentially got significant leverage when it comes to transportation, land use, and the built environment, since cities and counties are largely responsible for regulating those domains in the US.
Two of the three Boulder County Commissioner’s seats are up for grab this year, and it’s all but given that whoever secures the Democratic Party’s nomination will end up winning the election. In District 1 (which includes the city of Boulder as far east as Foothills, see this map) we are losing former Boulder mayor Will Toor, who has served two terms — the maximum allowed. Vying for his place are Elise Jones and Garry Sanfaçon. On June 1st, PLAN Boulder County held a lively candidate forum, moderated by Alan Boles.
My notes are necessarily an incomplete record of the exchange. Unless otherwise indicated by quotation marks, the words below represent my paraphrasing of the candidates statements.
As an introduction, Boles first asked: Who are you, and why are you running?
Elise Jones responded that given the political situation at the state and national level, she felt local politics is where important changes are likely to happen. She cited her 8 years on the Boulder Planning Board, and more than 20 years working on environmental protection statewide as relevant experience, giving her an intimate understanding of land use issues. She stated that she is the only candidate with experience working to regulate the oil and gas industry, and that this has been one of her primary focuses over the last decade, “Ever since Dick Cheney declared war on the West.” She was supportive of ending GMO use on county open space, and highlighted climate change as the single largest looming issue facing us (and the world) today, especially given the occurrence this year of some of the warmest, driest spring months on record.
Garry Sanfaçon spoke about his son who just graduated from Nederland High School. He wants his son to be able to move back to Boulder County some day, and the importance of making sure that we have both jobs and affordable housing to make it possible for regular folks to keep living here. He highlighted his experience working for the county as the Fourmile Canyon Fire recovery director, as a member of the Boulder County Planning Commission, and as a visioning facilitator for various organizations. Sanfaçon stated that he’s the candidate taking the “strongest positions” on GMOs and fracking, and said that if elected he “would vote to ban them on day one.”
From the looks exchanged during the introduction, it became clear pretty quickly that fracking was going to be a hot issue, and Boles went directly to it asking: Fracking appears to be a state regulatory issue, and the state is currently dropping the ball. What can we really do about it, from a legal point of view?
Boulder County is looking at some kind of county-wide sustainability program, with an associated tax which will be on the ballot this fall. The City of Boulder is revising its Climate Action Plan, looking toward a goal of climate neutrality in 2050. An extension of the tax which supports our climate work will also be on the ballot in the fall. One thing that none of that money should go toward? Urban farming.
(Fracking site close to Platteville, Colorado by Senator Mark Udall on Flickr)
With the introduction of the Halliburton Loophole in 2005 the Federal government largely abdicated its role in regulating the water quality impacts of oil and gas extraction. Local governments have been forced to step up, and communities in Colorado has been at the forefront of that effort. Routt County now requires stringent baseline water quality testing (PDF) before development can begin, and monthly re-testing during operations. The city of Longmont has banned all surface pits (PDF). The oil and gas industry is striking back against these efforts, with Colorado Senate Bill SB12-088 (PDF) which would preclude local governments from regulating oil and gas operations. If passed, this bill would slam the door on any potential regulation of fracking on our county open space lands.
A messy patchwork of different regulations in every little jurisdiction would be costly and legally dangerous for the oil and gas industry. The credible threat of such a patchwork is one of the few points of leverage we have, to get them to accept reasonable regulations at the state or national level.
If you’d like to retain the right to regulate — locally — the activities of these industries then please call and write the Senate Local Government Committee listed below. You may also attend and testify at the public hearing on the bill if you wish: Thursday, Feb. 16th at the Capitol Building, Senate Committee, Room 353, likely between 9:15 and 9:45am.
JOYCE FOSTER, Chair
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4875
JEANNE NICHOLSON, Vice Chair
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4873
IRENE AGUILAR, MD
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4852
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4859
Capitol Phone: 303-866-4884
In the summer of 2010, Boulder’s innovative Climate Smart Loan Program screeched to a halt, because the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) decided that the property assessed clean energy (PACE) financing mechanism amounted to a lien on any property enrolled in the program (read FHFA’s statements, and Boulder County’s response, both as PDFs). Because of this, they said they were unwilling to purchase and securitize PACE encumbered mortgages. In case you don’t remember, the FHFA oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government sponsored mortgage consolidation giants, through which nearly all consumer home loans pass at some point in their existence on the secondary market. And if they won’t buy your mortgage, then you’re not going to get a loan. This is unfortunate, since PACE financing programs had proven an effective way to get homeowners to make sensible long-term investments in energy efficiency and renewable generation, without having to take on the risk that future buyers would inappropriately undervalue the resulting savings.
However, the FHFA made this rule without engaging in any public process, and they were subsequently sued by the State of California and several cities and counties. The case has finally made it to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and while they have yet to make a ruling, the Court has directed the FHFA to begin collecting public input on the proposed rules. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has been involved in the suits and has had good ongoing coverage of the case:
- After the Earthquake and Before the Hurricane (8/29/2011)
- Be a part of PACEs revival (1/25/2012)
- PACE Lives! (1/26/2012)
The outcome of this case and the nature of the rules which are eventually adopted may have big effects on Boulder. Energy efficiency retrofits and local small scale renewable energy installation are high-quality local job producing industries. They allow our community to develop expertise that we can only hope will be in great demand in the near future. They’re absolutely vital to meeting our climate action plan goals. We have the financing mechanism in place to do this work; all we need is the go-ahead from the FHFA to get it underway. We should comment on these rules loud and clear.
The notice of the proposed rulemaking has been posted in the Federal Register, in all its gory detail. Details on how to submit comments can be found here. The easiest way is to e-mail Alfred M. Pollard, General Counsel: RegComments@fhfa.gov. You must include “RIN 2590-AA53” in the subject line of the message. All comments must be received by March 26th, 2012.
Another resource to keep an eye on is PACE Now, a bi-partisan group advocating for PACE programs in congress. They’re developing talking points, and have been working to get legislation passed which would protect PACE programs introduced in congress (like H.R. 2599, the PACE Assessment Protection Act of 2011… which unfortunately didn’t get very far).
It’s not crazy to think that the FHFA or some other federal agency might have a useful role to play in the regulation of PACE programs. It’s important that the financing be set up to incentivize the most cost effective improvements first so as not to unduly burden future property owners, and to save as much energy as possible with a finite pool of funding (e.g. attic insulation and air sealing before solar panels…), but the outright ban is clearly far too broad.
Below is what I sent. Post what you send in the comments if you feel so inclined!
Property Assessed Clean Energy financing programs, as have been initiated by many states and local governments, are a potentially transformative financing mechanism, enabling property owners to make good long term investments in energy efficiency and behind-the-meter renewable energy production. They address a market failure, in that buyers often do not appropriately integrate a property’s energy costs into their price assessment. So long as the state and local PACE programs are performance based, and incentivise both efficiency and renewables, preferring those investments which have the greatest (positive) net present value, given the financing rate which is available to the government entity sponsoring the program, they do not pose a significant risk to mortgage holders, and should be allowed in FHFA held mortgages. Additionally, local energy efficiency and solar power installation provide high quality, skilled jobs which cannot be exported, stimulating the economies of the localities implementing the programs. These types of energy efficiency and local renewables programs can go a significant way toward reducing the energy intensivity of our existing building stock, and help insulate the US economy from fluctuations in fossil fueled energy prices.
FHFA’s previous ruling has directly affected my community, stalling out energy efficiency programs here in Boulder, CO. Rather than effectively banning these programs, I encourage the FHFA to work with the building retrofit industry and the state and local governments which have instituted these programs to develop guidelines which ensure the most cost effective use of PACE financing, including the use of before and after energy audits, and other energy efficiency retrofit best practices.
Cross-posted at The Boulder Blue Line.
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) regulates Xcel Energy; they have final say over the rates that the company is allowed to charge, and which investments they make in our energy future. In the past four years, the CPUC has approved 3 rate increases. The commission also allowed Xcel to build the state’s largest coal-fired power plant — Comanche 3 — at a cost of nearly one billion dollars, waiving their own rule that such large projects be bid out competitively. By doing so, they handed Xcel a windfall profit. Now Xcel wants to double down its long-term bets on coal by spending nearly $400 million to refurbish the aging Pawnee and Hayden power plants, tying Colorado to this polluting and climate damaging fuel for decades to come, and making all of us pay for the privilege of burning it.
The CPUC is allowing Xcel Energy to make choices that are bad for our rates, good for their profits, and which degrade our environment both locally and globally. Furthermore, the commission has — at Xcel’s request — begun barring citizen participation in their proceedings. Decisions about our rates, fuel mix, and the huge capital expenditures made on our behalf thus stand to be approved without any direct public participation. If we stick with Xcel, we will be stuck with this impenetrable regulatory system indefinitely. In contrast, the governance of a local Boulder utility would be far more accountable, accessible, and transparent. It would not involve constantly battling a well funded corporate adversary. It would be able to reflect Boulder’s core values of sustainability and innovation — values unfortunately not universally shared by our fellow Coloradans. We would also be able to effectively leverage our vibrant community of clean energy entrepreneurs.
We have vastly more access to our City Council and the commissioners they appoint than we will ever be able to get at state level. Whatever decisions are made locally, we can be confident that our community will have a voice in the process and truly influence the outcome. Vote Yes on 2B and 2C and give us the power to control our own energy future!
(this post is a slightly longer version of the Letter to the Editor that I wrote with Amy Guinan)