Ritter’s Legacy: Clean Energy

Listen Now

In a few weeks Governor Bill Ritter’s finishes his term in office. Four years ago, Ritter campaigned on a platform he called the “Colorado Promise.” Here he is from election night, 2006.

Ritter: We believe that the Colorado promise is about the new energy economy where this state, Colorado, is a leader in renewable energy, in wind, in solar, in biofuels.”

So, did Colorado become a leader during Ritter's four years? Reporter Zachary Barr has the story.

For Governor Ritter, his “New Energy Economy” was about more than alternative energy. It meant a move towards energy independence, a cleaner environment, home-grown innovation, and new jobs that pay well.

Melody Harris: Selection of the term was deliberate to incorporate what what we wanted to accomplish with energy.

That’s Melody Harris, who helped craft Ritter’s energy policy back in 2006. She came up with the phrase “The New Energy Economy.” Safe to say, it stuck:

Melody Harris: Well, I certainly had no idea it was going to become a drinking game. I had know idea that he would use it quite that often.

Yes, Ritter reliably said “New Energy Economy” so often, that when some political die-hards gathered to listen a speech, they’d take a drink each time he said the phrase. But for John Nielsen the term had more serious ramifications.

John Nielsen: It was welcome news to see an elected leader prioritize clean energy development in the way that he did.

Nielsen’s with Western Resource Advocates, an environmental law and policy group. He’s spent a decade and a half listening to leaders talk about clean energy production.

John Nielsen: The difference in Governor Ritter’s message was a focus in diversifying our energy resources, and bringing online new technologies, in a way we hadn’t heard before.

Over the course of his term, Ritter says his administration passed more than 50 pieces of energy-related legislation. One measure that Nielsen and other environmentalists single out is the state’s renewable electricity standard. When Ritter took office, the state had already pledged to get 10% of its power from clean energy by the end of this decade. Pam Kiely is program director for Environment Colorado

Pam Kiely: in 2010, the Ritter administration helped spearhead the charge to boost state’s commitment to 30%. Literally the second best standard in the country.

The 30% requirement creates a substantial guaranteed market for renewable energy products and services. While many don’t agree with this regulation-based approach, it’s undeniable that the high renewable standard put it Colorado on the map. Clint Wilder is a senior editor with Clean Edge, a company that ranks the states by their advances in clean energy technology, policy and capital. He says Colorado is fifth best.

Clint Wilder: Trailing only west coast states and Massachusetts. And my sense is that in 2007, Colorado was really nowhere near that high.

Let’s look at another measure - jobs. Job creation was one of Ritter’s key selling points for his New Energy Economy. When economist Patty Silverstein first heard this theory four years ago, she was skeptical

Patty Silverstein: I thought, we’ll put a lot of folks to work in building farms or building solar arrays. But then it doesn’t take whole lot of people to watch those wind blades turn ‘round, or the sun to shine.

But Silvestein didn’t see wind energy giant Vestas in her crystal ball.

Patty Silverstein: Not only did we manage to attract here in Colorado one of the world’s largest producers of wind blades, but many of their suppliers. And that has created interest in manufacturing operations here in Colorado for the first time in over a decade.

Silverstein says the entire clean energy sector now employs about 20,000 people. Federal stimulus money funds some of these jobs -- for instance, hundreds of workers making buildings more energy efficient. The Solar industry benefits, too. Willie Mean owns Custom Solar, in Boulder.

Willie Mein: We have benefited tremendously from policies at the state level. Every time there’s a rebate program we are booked out for months.

But Mein’s concerned that when a key rebate program loses its stimulus funding a year from now, going solar won’t be as popular. That would be a setback for the state and utilities. That’s because renewable energy supplies just 7% of the state’s electricity now, and it’s supposed to be 30% by then end this decade. Overseeing that ambitious push will soon be John Hickenlooper’s job. He takes office January 11.