Colorado's legislature approved one of the toughest renewable energy standards in the country on Monday.
Once the governor signs that legislation, utilities will be required to get 30 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. That follows an agreement Gov. Bill Ritter signed last week with Colorado's largest utility, Xcel, and a coalition of energy companies and lawmakers to reduce pollution and shift several coal-fired power plants to natural gas by 2017.
The state's clear move toward renewable energy — and away from coal — stands in stark contrast to some of its neighbors in the West, where the best and some of the worst of clean energy policies are on display.
Colorado's recent history of renewable energy and efficiency benchmarks began in 2004, when it became the first state to put a renewable energy standard vote before the general public instead of the legislature. The move passed, barely, and since then, the momentum has picked up dramatically. Investor-owned utilities are currently required to produce at least 20 percent of electricity by 2020; the bill that just passed the Colorado Senate 21-13 and the House 37-27 will increase that requirement to 30 percent.
"Colorado's New Energy Economy is already leading the country toward a cleaner and more secure energy future," Ritter said.
"This proposal will keep Colorado at the forefront of America's energy revolution. It will protect consumers, clean our air and protect public health, and create new jobs by increasing demand for Colorado-produced natural gas."
If Colorado is at the forefront of the energy revolution, some of its neighboring states are bringing up the rear. Utah, although with similar renewable resources as well as being similarly situated atop extensive coal and gas deposits, appears to be backsliding on the issue. The state legislature has taken aim at climate change, issuing a resolution that questions the science and urges the EPA to drop any moves toward regulating greenhouse gases, and the state's current renewable energy portfolio standard is only a "goal" for utilities to get 20 percent of their power from cleaner sources by 2025.
Lawmakers also have aimed to limit the liability of companies that might harm the environment or human health as a result of greenhouse gas-related effects, even though their resolution shows that many at least publicly say they don't believe what the science shows.
"Contradictory is actually a specialty of the Utah legislature," said Mark Clemens, of the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter. "Or, intellectual inconsistency, one could say. Certainly the resolutions are mostly just hot air, and there has been a huge amount of that on Utah's capitol hill this year."
Clemens pointed out, though, that not all of the legislature's actions have been more symbolic than substantive. Senate Bill 242 was introduced as a renewable energy tax credits bill, but then was amended drastically: "Renewable" turned into "alternative," and the latter now includes energy from petroleum coke, shale oil and tar sands along with standard renewable energy sources.
Clemens said that the bill appears to be "sailing through" the state legislature; it passed the Senate with only one dissenting vote.
For two states with similar energy resources, what might the difference be between Colorado and Utah? According to many, Colorado's Gov. Ritter plays an important role.
"I'd say he plays the single biggest role," said Phil von Hake, communications director for the Colorado Renewable Energy Society.
"Utah has at least as good solar resources as we do, I just haven't heard much in the form of aggressive policy coming out of there. In Arizona, their solar industry is finally flexing its muscle, but again they're having to fight a very reactionary legislature. Whereas our governor, our legislature, our public utilities commission, have been taking very forward-looking steps to promote more renewable energy."
Ritter's renewable energy accomplishments include expanding the original voter resolution to the portfolio standard today, as well as forming the Governor's Energy Office and, according to von Hake, "addressing climate change in a way that no governor ever has."
"He has a climate advisor, he has a climate action plan, and he has called on 20 or 30 utilities around the state to submit their own climate action plan," von Hake said. "If I had known how much he would do for renewable energy his first month in office, not to mention his first term, I would have worked a lot harder on his campaign."
That commitment to renewable energy at the state level might be in jeopardy, though.
Ritter announced in January that he will not seek reelection this fall. The race for the next governor will be between the Democratic mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, and former Republican Congressman Scott McInnis; recent polls show McInnis slightly in the lead.
Hickenlooper has indicated he would continue the renewable energy trends begun by Ritter, but even McInnis, who has focused more on fossil fuel energy, wouldn't be able to halt the state's momentum, according to von Hake.
"I get a feeling that the renewable energy industry in Colorado is getting enough of its own legs that it won't necessarily die if there is a Governor McInnis," he said.
The influence of strong governors when it comes to clean energy and addressing climate change became clear in Utah last year, when President Obama appointed then-Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., to be ambassador to China.
Huntsman, a Republican, had pushed the state toward more renewable energy and had created a panel to determine the best ways to address climate change. In contrast, Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, who succeeded him, outwardly questions the science of climate change while acknowledging that he doesn't understand it. Herbert faces a gubernatorial election in November.
"I think that Governor Herbert would benefit from a greater education on efficiency and renewables, and we hope to be able to do that if remains in office," said Sarah Wright, executive director of the non-profit Utah Clean Energy. She added that Herbert's main challenger for the governor's chair comes from Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, and that he "has a deep understanding of the benefits of efficiency and renewables to Utah."
However, Utah is heavily conservative and Republican. Colorado's voters, in contrast, have shifted to the middle and its legislature leans Democratic.
Elsewhere in the region, governors also seem to be playing a role in states' progress toward renewable energy adoption. Former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano was tapped by President Obama to be the Secretary of Homeland Security, and her replacement, Republican Jan Brewer, has presided over a mixed bag of renewable energy activity. The state has adopted a reasonably strong portfolio standard, but recent attempts to include nuclear power in the standard to effectively dilute it's power — though they appear to have failed — stained the state's green reputation.
Arizona also recently diminished its status in the Western Climate Initiative from "partner" to "observer," a move Utah's legislature is, perhaps unsurprisingly given its position on climate change, also pondering. Several states and Canadian provinces formed the Western Climate Initiative to combat climate change in the face of slow-acting federal governments.
Progress around the country has differed drastically in the renewable energy realm, based on everything from demographics to legislative priorities to energy resource bases. California has led the nation for years in addressing environmental and climate concerns, and Washington state and Oregon are often at the forefront, as well.
In the Mountain West, though, where many states share characteristics that might align their energy policies, clearly a number of factors can change outcomes. Wright, of Utah Clean Energy, thinks that with better education of policymakers, some of the wrongs can be righted.
"I think why we are not moving rapidly in this state has to do with the fact that many policy makers are afraid that change will hurt us negatively," she said. "They don't really realize the economic development benefits of renewable energy, energy efficiency and low carbon technologies."
(Photo: Office of the Governor of Colorado)