Carbondale Corner: Trail map to a clean energy future
Referring to my environmentalist tendencies, my dad used to call me a “deep breather” and a “tree hugger.” He was a collector of Ford Mustangs — the quintessential symbol of the freedom and unbridled growth that was emerging from a fossil fuel economy revving up in the 1960s.
For my dad and many folks who came of age in these times, environmentalism was pointless at best and at worst a pesky impediment to economic growth. I am happy to report that times have changed.
Unfortunately, today it’s painfully obvious that the rivers and forests that my boys inherited are not as pristine as what I inherited several decades prior. Not only was the environment in better shape in the ‘70s, but there wasn’t a clear economic value assigned to clean water, clean air and healthy ecosystems. That meant that environmental damage was “externalized” and therefore out of sight and out of mind.
Markets couldn’t reflect the true cost of pollution because we didn’t understand the damage being done. As a result, goods and services were cheaper and the fossil fuel economy had an extremely bright future.
Interestingly enough it wasn’t long before regulation was enacted to compensate for where the markets fell short in protecting what some would argue is America’s greatest assets.
To this day, I would say some of the greatest environmental progress came under Republican presidents. Richard Nixon signed the Environmental Protection and Clean Water Acts. By committing the U.S. to the Montreal Protocol, Ronald Reagan led the developed world in phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals. He referred to it as an “insurance policy” against catastrophic consequences. Turns out it was well worth the investment. George H.W. Bush signed the Production Tax Credit, which has played a large role in the development of renewables.
Fast forward 40-plus years and there has been a fundamental shift in how economic forces value the environment.
Today, 60 percent of Fortune 100 and 43 percent of Fortune 500 companies have clean-energy or climate targets. Corporations now account for 25 percent of the new wind and utility-scale solar built in the U.S.
Environmental stewardship is finally aligning more with economic prosperity. Global markets are beginning to better understand the inherent risks of pollution and the politics of a fossil fuel economy. For example, NV Energy, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy, committed to a solar purchase agreement at $0.0387 per kilowatt hour. That’s about two-thirds less than the global average cost for coal-fired power.
That is just one example, but look around and you’ll see that utilities are scrambling to adjust to a world where climate risk is being monetized and renewables are becoming far more economic. Maybe that’s why private investment in fossil fuels is plummeting while the opposite is true for renewables.
These trends are playing out in our region, as well. We have been incredibly proactive in embracing a clean energy economy that is more economic and minimizes pollution. In Garfield County alone, the energy economy (the amount we all spend on energy annually) is worth well over $100 million, so why shouldn’t we embrace it?
Nationally we’ve hit the sweet spot where building efficiency is cheaper — yes, cheaper — than buying coal-fired electricity. Many communities, including Carbondale, saw this coming years ago and hedged against rising energy costs. A great example is Carbondale’s investment into efficiency, which has reduced pollution and energy costs at the wastewater plant by 50 percent. That’s tens of thousands of dollars that is now being reinvested into the community every year.
But don’t get me wrong: Blazing this trail still ain’t easy, but it’s more important than ever. So the town of Carbondale is in the process of raising the bar by updating its clean energy and sustainability goals.
The Carbondale community, guided by CLEER, CORE and the E-Board, has recently completed a draft plan that we’ll use as a trail map to an even cleaner and more prosperous future. It’s building on an already robust local clean energy economy fed by both start-ups and mature businesses specializing in solar, building efficiency, alternative transportation, waste diversion, local food and local products. These “tree huggers” and “deep breathers” are economic development and job-creation leaders not just in Carbondale, but also all over the Western Slope.
So if our greatest assets are a pristine environment and gainfully employed citizens, we’re crazy not to pursue environmental stewardship with vigor. If we want our youth to inherit clean water, clean air and a prosperous economy, then we must continue to invest in a clean energy economy. I look forward to the day my boys get to experience the thrill of cruising in a Ford Mustang. Most exciting is that their Mustangs will be supercharged by the sun, won’t leave a trail of black smoke and will do zero to 60 in about half the time as my dad’s.
Dan Richardson is mayor of Carbondale.
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