'The last word is action'

Boulder clean-energy activist sees declining coal supply as a boon

 

Name Leslie Glustrom
Age 55
Vocation Mother of two, founding member of the nonprofit group Clean Energy Action
Past Jobs Biochemist, science teacher, science writer
Favorite activity on her half-day weekends "Being in the woods alone, talking to the trees."
Favorite sport Ice hockey
Thoughts on coal "I'm a climate change activist who is worried that we don't have enough coal. That's an ironic place to be."

Few people get excited about public utility meetings. But at the Tri-State Rural Electric Co-op in Westminster, Colo., on a spring night, Leslie Glustrom is squirming in her seat. Eager to address the Tri-State executives, she scribbles notes about obscure energy data, her brown hair short above broad shoulders.

"Tri-State is sitting on top of world-class wind and solar resources," Glustrom says. The co-op powers rural electric utilities in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska -- "the Saudi Arabia of wind and solar," she says, gesturing emphatically. Glustrom, a clean energy advocate, believes it's Tri-State's duty to exploit those resources.

In the circular boardroom, about 40 advocates and industry representatives in business attire mingle under fluorescent lights, munching donuts and drinking coffee. Glustrom offers firm handshakes but abstains from refreshments. "I want to maintain my independence," she explains. Tri-State's managers sit behind a row of microphones, lending a diplomatic air to the co-op's first attempt at officially inviting the public to comment on its planning process.

Environmental groups such as Western Resource Advocates and Environment Colorado have pushed Tri-State to build its green energy portfolio –– a relatively new concept for a utility that will get just 2 percent of its supply from wind and solar next year. Like most Western utilities, it gets the vast majority of its power from coal plants. With state law now mandating more renewables, though, change is in the smoggy Front Range air.

As founder of the Boulder-based nonprofit Clean Energy Action, Glustrom is a frequent presence at meetings like this one. For the last six years, she has pestered the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC), Xcel Energy and Gov. Bill Ritter to embrace renewable energy and stop burning coal. She has rallied other activists to the cause. She has pored over thousands of pages of technical documents to determine where the state's electricity will come from and how it will affect public health and the environment. But in describing her work, she perpetually shifts attention away from herself: "Citizens have led the way," she says, "every step of the way."

It may seem inconsistent, coming from a clean energy activist, but Glustrom is genuinely worried about the future of the coal industry. Coal's reputation as a plentiful domestic energy source is a myth, she says. As the economically recoverable coal supply fades over the next 10 to 20 years, she says, it will shorten the planning horizon for renewables and speed the shift to green energy.

"We've seen a 30 percent loss in production of coal in Colorado in the last four years," Glustrom says at the microphone in the Tri-State boardroom as managers look up from their notes. "You just assume that coal is going to show up. ... I would hope you wouldn't do that."

Glustrom refers to the fact that a coal shortage could help advance renewables as "the sweet imperative," but she also recognizes the devastating economic consequences if renewables aren't ready to replace coal when needed. Since Tri-State's job is to supply reliable energy over the long term, Glustrom points out that developing renewables now is in the utility's best interest.

State law is on her side. Colorado's renewable portfolio standard for electric co-ops, which passed in 2007, requires 10 percent renewables by 2020. So Tri-State has two major wind and solar facilities coming next year. This March, an amendment upped the standard to 30 percent by 2020 for investor-owned utilities like Xcel Energy –– a major victory for Clean Energy Action and other environmental groups.

Glustrom left a career in biochemistry in 2004 to start Clean Energy Action, applying her scientific sensibilities to environmental activism. In 2005, she found an old state law that allows ratepayers to attend PUC meetings as stakeholders. "I said, ‘Knock, knock. I wanna play,' " she says. "Sooner or later, they thought I would just go home and bake cookies." Instead, she kept coming back.

"A lot of her power comes from being a mother," says Micah Parkin, Colorado organizer for the climate group 1Sky, "and the full realization of what will be lost if we don't act strongly enough at this point in history." But despite her feeling of urgency, Glustrom hasn't lost her sense of humor. In last year's 10-kilometer Bolder Boulder race, she dressed up as a doctor and pushed a stuffed polar bear in a wheelchair while handing out clean energy propaganda.

Clean Energy Action's latest fight –– a campaign to stop Xcel Energy's new coal plant in Pueblo, Colo. –– has vanished up the smokestack. The plant went online in May, increasing the percentage of coal-powered electricity in Colorado from 57 percent to 68 percent. "That's a huge step in the wrong direction," Glustrom says.

But Glustrom remains optimistic. Another recent state law, which requires Xcel to convert several aging coal plants to natural gas, is partly a fruit of her lobbying and organizing efforts. Glustrom also takes comfort in her fellow activists.

"A lot of this (work) is about getting local citizens to have the courage to stand up and say ‘No, I'm not going home to bake cookies,' " Glustrom says. "I'm going to be here tomorrow and the next day and the next day."