GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Former Gov. Bill Ritter says the energy savings and economic development achieved by the Garfield Clean Energy project should be shared across Colorado and the whole country.
"Looking at your progress report to date, I was struck by the kinds of things that a group of people working collaboratively around a vision could accomplish - the buildings impacted, jobs created, energy not being used, the number of private sector contractors involved," Ritter said.
"I think we can replicate it, and find ways to tell this story around the state and around the country," he added.
Ritter was the keynote speaker at the Garfield Clean Energy Innovation Awards event held Friday evening at the Hotel Colorado, which drew more than 80 people.
He and Parachute Mayor Pro-Tem Judith Hayward presented eight awards to clean energy innovators from throughout Garfield County, and a ninth award was presented by Jim Martin, Region 8 administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Ritter received his own share of kudos for launching the state grant program in 2008 that led to the formation of Garfield Clean Energy.
"We would not be here tonight if it hadn't been for you," said Garfield Clean Energy Chairman Greg Russi, a New Castle town councilman.
"Bill Ritter laid out an ambitious blueprint to make Colorado a leader in creating sustainable jobs, encourage economic growth, and to bring clean energy to cities and towns with the New Energy Communities Initiative," Russi said.
"Since then, nearly every energy dollar has multiplied itself, time and time again, in the form of new jobs, lower energy bills and a cleaner environment," he added.
Emcee Keith Lambert, a Rifle city councilman and Garfield Clean Energy board member, said the clean energy effort "makes sense economically. We would not get the buy-in if there weren't a financial gain to be made. As a result, it's been very successful."
Lambert said Garfield Clean Energy has now set a goal of making Garfield County the most energy efficient county in the country.
In his keynote address, Ritter recalled the thinking that led up to his launch of the New Energy Communities Initiative in 2008. As governor, he had already retooled the Governor's Energy Office, and he formed his cabinet around a set of principles that included growing the state's economy through clean energy.
"We had a cabinet that believed in this from beginning to end," he said. One day, two of those cabinet members - Tom Plant of the Governor's Energy Office and Susan Kirkpatrick of the Department of Local Affairs - came to him with the idea that a grant program could help local communities achieve clean energy goals just as they were doing at the state government level.
Ritter agreed, and Local Affairs offered $10 million in a competitive grant program to towns, cities and counties across Colorado. The single largest grant, $1.6 million, went to an alliance of local government entities in Garfield County: the county government, the six towns, the library district and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.
The project was and still is managed by CLEER: Clean Energy Economy for the Region, a nonprofit based in Carbondale.
"I don't think any of us thought it would get this big, that a place like Garfield County would embrace this, nurture the idea and grow it to the extent you have over that period," Ritter said.
"You have proven the concept of collaboration and worked across disciplines in a way that's civil and that's visionary," Ritter told the audience. "We need to learn from you about pressing the envelope on innovation."
While the former governor was generous with compliments to clean energy leaders in Garfield County, he had sharp words for the U.S. Congress for its resistance to acknowledge and take action on climate change.
After leaving the governor's office in January 2011, Ritter raised funds to create the Center for a New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, where he serves as the director.
In the time since, he has worked with 26 states to help them develop clean energy policies and take advantage of the jobs and economic development associated with renewable energy and energy efficiency.
His position has taken him around the world to consult with foreign leaders on energy and climate. He is also serving on the Presidential Climate Advisory Commission, a group that has prepared a list of recommendations for the next president on how to tackle climate issues.
He expressed frustration with the doubt cast by those who deny climate change, which has allowed Congress to avoid any action.
"Nobody in sub-Saharan Africa is debating climate science," he said. "The National Academies of Sciences agree that climate change is happening. There is no policy debate on this anywhere except in the U.S. Congress."
The climate science predictions of 20 and 25 years ago have proven correct, he said, in predicting beetle kill, rising numbers of tornados, hurricanes and floods, and extreme high temperatures lasting for days and weeks.
"We have the opportunity to change the future in a dramatic way for our kids and grandkids, and we are squandering it," Ritter said.
He called on those at the event to "think about your place in this moral imperative, and say to the rest of state that we can collaborate in a way that can make a difference to the environment, to climate change, and to address this issue of how we produce and consume energy.
"It's an important message that you tell so well, and God bless you for telling it," he said.