Touted energy efficiency program re-up hits legislative speed bump

Author: John Tomasic - April 26, 2017 - Updated: April 26, 2017

Xcel electric wires in Boulder. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)
Xcel Energy wires in Boulder. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)

A bipartisan bill to reauthorize a popular and by most accounts dramatically successful utility-run energy efficiency program in the state was detoured Wednesday on its way to the Senate floor.

Republicans on the Senate agricultural and energy committee voted as a bloc to send House Bill 1227 to the hardline Senate finance committee.

Supporters of the bill searched to make sense of the new committee assignment. They had expected no-drama legislative formalities, pointing to the fact that the committee heard the bill last week and that bipartisan support then seemed solid. Wednesday’s hearing was scheduled to be “action only,” meaning roughly a vote and no debate or testimony on the substance. The bill passed with strong bipartisan support in the House weeks ago.

Senate sponsor Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, sent out a release after the hearing, warning of “sleight of hand.” He feared the new committee assignment might be a strategic maneuver to kill the bill.

“Today’s move in the Senate committee is an embarrassment to the legislative process,” he wrote in the statement. “This bill had bipartisan support and had the votes to pass, but instead of giving it a fair vote, Republican leadership played politics with 40,000 jobs and working families across Colorado.”

The bill would extend a program started in 2007 that required the Colorado Public Utility Commission to establish ten-year energy efficiency goals for the state’s two investor-owned electric utilities, Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy. The goal was to save 5 percent of energy use. The utilities are expected to save 12 percent. Fenberg’s bill would extend the program for another decade.

Frustrated supporters of the bill eyed Senate committee member John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley, as the architect of the move. Cooke was unavailable for comment Wednesday night, but it is no secret that he is married to Amy Oliver Cooke, the director of the libertarian Independence Institute’s Energy Policy Center, and that she is the most outspoken of few public critics of the energy efficiency program.

Oliver Cooke is also a member of the Trump transition team tasked with stripping back the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate industry and to enact climate change policies. She has argued that Colorado’s energy efficiency program costs utility ratepayers money and does so largely in the service of reducing the use of fossil fuels.

But the program reauthorization has been enthusiastically endorsed by businesses, chambers of commerce, and industry and energy groups across the state. Supporters say the results of the program speak for themselves.

According to figures reported by the state’s utility commission, the program has been a boon to Colorado and has saved ratepayers money. It has most dramatically perhaps acted as a job creation program for the energy efficiency sector, which hits every corner of the state, employing more than 40,000 people — builders, engineers, architects, designers, heating and cooling system makers and installers, and so on — to build and retrofit warehouses, office spaces, schools, factories, restaurants and home subdivisions.

Efficiency is also touted in the energy generation industry as the cheapest way to, in effect, produce more power. Upgrading infrastructure capacity and building new power plants in a state with exploding population growth would cost ratepayers billions.

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.