Counties take steps to build a new energy economy

by Peter Runyon and Jim Starr

The November elections came and went without the hoopla of a year ago, but voters in western Colorado quietly approved measures that could set the stage for a clean energy revolution. 

Rural mountain communities in Gunnison, Eagle and Pitkin counties voted to support clean, homegrown energy and energy efficiency. These clean energy investments are a triple win: They will increase energy security, save money on utility bills and create good local jobs. 

Everyone agrees that upgrades such as home weatherization and energy saving appliances help us do more with less energy. Solar rooftops powering homes and small wind turbines powering farms and ranches have helped a number of new businesses get going. And by installing locally produced clean energy, people can do their part to cut pollution and decrease the need for costly energy transmission lines.

So what's the catch? Money. The biggest obstacle is how homeowners and small businesses find the cash. Local investments make financial sense in the medium-to-long term, yet even utility rebates that lower costs are often not enough for many homeowners and businesses. 

Enter the program that western Colorado voters approved this fall. PACE stands for "Property Assessed Clean Energy." Its approach is simple: Local governments create programs so that homeowners and businesses can apply for long-term, affordable loans that pay the upfront costs of renewable energy and efficiency improvement projects. The loans are paid back through a special assessment on the property tax of property owners who choose to participate in the program. The loans are tied to the property, and they transfer to the new property owner(s) upon sale.  The terms of these types of loans mean that monthly energy savings may be enough to cover the cost of the loan payment.

Once again, Colorado is ahead of the curve. Over a year and a half ago –– well before Vice President Joe Biden announced a plan to make PACE available nationally –– Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter signed a bill that gives cities and counties the means to create similar financing programs. The Governor's Energy Office also jumped out in front and worked with local jurisdictions to help make these programs a reality. Another creative leader is Boulder County, which got approval in 2008 from voters for a $40 million program called "Climate Smart." It is giving a shot in the arm to the local economy without costing taxpayers a dime. 

Boulder County has issued over $6 million in clean energy improvement loans during the program's first phase. This summer alone, local contractors and solar installers got close to 400 energy projects off the ground. Small businesses such as EcoHandyman, which added 20 new jobs through Climate Smart financing worth nearly $100,000, received an economic boost at a critical time. 

After we saw this success on Colorado's Front Range, we, as county commissioners, decided to "pick up the PACE" and ask our constituents this November if they wanted similar clean energy financing options. Local business interests, including the Aspen Ski Company, Eagle Valley Homebuilders Association and the Crested Butte-Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce, helped lead the charge, advocating for this approach. Voters in all three counties collectively authorized $20 million for clean energy projects loans. 

Holy Cross Electric Association and Gunnison County Electric Association, both rural electric co-ops, actively supported the measures.  They recognize that opening the door to broader participation in creating clean energy will not only be a boon to local economies, but also create more customers who can choose to "go solar" or make their homes more energy efficient. This will help drive down utility bills and complement utility efforts to reach clean energy and efficiency goals. 

Colorado's Western Slope has taken a big step towards boosting a green economic recovery. Now, our counties are awaiting a $5 million block grant from the Governor's Energy Office, made possible by federal economic stimulus dollars, which would help jump start the PACE program and start clean energy education programs.

We're glad to be part of these necessary changes, not just because it's the right thing to do, but also because it strengthens our communities and the people who make a living here. It's a bottom-up transformation, and that's always a good thing. 

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Peter Runyon is a commissioner for Eagle County and Jim Starr is a commissioner for Gunnison County, both in western Colorado.

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