Coloradans Vote to Embrace Alternative Sources of Energy
FORT COLLINS, Colo. - Colorado utilities will have to sell a lot more electricity from wind power in years to come under a statewide ballot initiative approved by voters on Nov. 2, and if they want some pointers they might talk to Adam T. Kremers, a 19-year-old sophomore at Colorado State University here. He has been there and done that.
Mr. Kremers sold wind power to the occupants of individual dormitory rooms this fall, under an agreement between the university and the local utility that environmentalists describe as one of the first such programs in the nation.
Mr. Kremers, an environmental engineering major and the associate director of environmental affairs in the student government, gave out stickers and pinwheels shaped like turbines and threw a "wind power party" to celebrate clean energy, complete with a cake connived from the dining hall.
He ultimately got 187 students - nearly 4 percent of the university's residence-hall population of 5,000 - to sign up, paying an additional $17 to $52 a year to buy green power to run their computers and lava lamps.
"It's a start," Mr. Kremers said. "Now it's my duty to keep it going."
Colorado voters said much the same thing when they approved, over the vehement objections of most energy companies, a proposal mandating that 10 percent of the state's electricity must come from wind and solar power by 2015.
The law, Amendment 37, makes Colorado the 18th state with an environmentally friendly energy standard, but the first one to have bypassed the Legislature and put the rule into place through referendum. An energy bill similar to the one the voters approved was defeated by Colorado's Legislature three times in the last three years.
"Because it's a conservative Western state with a strong fossil-fuel industry, as well as the first one passed by a popular referendum, Colorado represents something of a breakthrough," said Alan Nogee, the energy program director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Cambridge, Mass.
And Fort Collins, a city of 118,000 people dominated culturally by the 25,000-student university, got there first.
The city created its own wind energy program in 1998, and its own renewable energy standard in 2003 - a step that only a few other municipalities in the nation, notably Chicago and Austin, Tex., have taken.
Under the program, about 2 percent of the city's customer base and electricity load now comes from wind power, purchased from wind farms in Wyoming through a nonprofit power authority. The idea is that each purchase of wind power fed into the grid offsets fossil- fuel use. Colorado gets most of its electricity from burning coal.
It was from that municipal utility framework, city and school officials say, that the dormitory project took root. And just like Amendment 37, which clawed its way onto the ballot through petitions, what happened on the campus came from the bottom up. People like Mr. Kremers and a former student, Britta Schroeder, his predecessor at the student government's environment job, prodded and pushed until they found a way.
"It was almost all exclusively the students doing this," said Carol Dollard, a utility engineer at the university who got involved in the residence-hall project. The pitch to the administration, Ms. Dollard said, was that wind energy would be an entirely optional added cost for students, and that the grunt work would be done by the students themselves. "We sold it as zero cost, zero effort," she said.
Mr. Kremers, who has a quotation from Gandhi on the door of his dorm room - "Be the change you wish to see in the world" - considers the new state law a wonderful boost to what is happening on campus.
Fort Collins officials are more guarded. They say that as one of a small number of "home rule" cities that run their own electric systems in Colorado, they want to opt out of the new law because they believe their energy program is better.
It is certainly more ambitious, requiring 15 percent of the energy sold in city limits to come from wind sources by 2017, 50 percent more than the state requirement. City officials also do not like the idea of interference by the state Public Utility Commission, which will oversee the statewide standards, and they worry as well that the Legislature could amend the plan.
The Fort Collins City Council voted to remain neutral on Amendment 37 before the election. Statewide, the measure got the support of slightly more than half the electorate - 53.4 percent voted for it, to 46.6 percent against.
"Does the P.U.C. have jurisdiction over a home-rule city? That's what people were worried about," said Michael B. Smith, the general manager of utilities for Fort Collins. "We will be closely watching what happens."
Environmentalists who backed Amendment 37 noted that it included specific language intended to protect Fort Collins, and other cities that might join its ranks with local standards, allowing them to self-certify out of the program.
But they also admitted that because the measure was passed as an ordinary state law, it could be amended by the Legislature - or repealed entirely, though hardly anyone expects that to happen - and that the Public Utility Commission would also have to work out the details of enacting it over the next year.
"It's a statute, so the Legislature can change it however it sees fit, but I would hope that since it was passed by the voice of the people, they would respect that," said the measure's principal author, Rick Gilliam, a senior energy policy adviser at Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit environment law and policy center. "My hope is that we would at least go forward into the P.U.C. realm before the Legislature tinkers with it."
At the university, plans are under way for next year's wind campaign. Ms. Dollard, the utility engineer, said that one proposal would extend the wind power option to individual professors and departments that might want to buy some or all their energy from the city's wind program.
"It was a three-year process to get the residence halls through, so we've said let's not take on too many things until we've learned the lessons from the first part," she said.
Mr. Kremers, meanwhile, is plotting how to get financing for his second-year marketing plan. He wants to print advertising cards that could be put in every mailbox of next year's incoming freshman class - about 5,000 students - and he has a strategy in mind.
The university's recycling committee, mostly composed of faculty and administration, works on issues like reducing waste in the dining halls, and he is the student representative on the board.
"The recycling committee has a good budget," he said. "We'll see."