Colorado in the late 1970s had a convergence of people who thought there had to be another way to power a civilization. Among them were the founders of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society.
by Allen Best
Cleve Simpson was one of two state legislators who attended the Colorado Renewable Energy Society’s annual conference in 2022. The reason was not immediately obvious.
The second legislator was scheduled to receive an award that afternoon at the sunshine-dappled Unitarian Church between Golden and Wheat Ridge. But why was Simpson, a Republican who represents the San Luis Valley as well as southwestern Colorado, there to hear about microgrids, agrivoltaics, and other presentations?
Since its founding in 1996, the Colorado Renewable Energy Society has been a fount of educational programming about solar, wind, and other subjects related to energy.
The organization has often provided grassroots and sometimes grasstops—some members are unusually well connected—advocacy for taking steps to achieve this deepening penetration.
Simpson, a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, is listed on the General Assembly website as being a “farmer/rancher.” That description falls short of his resume. He was a mining engineer who worked 20 years in the lignite coal fields of Texas as well as in Australia before returning to his roots. He’s a fourth-generation farmer in the San Luis Valley.
And farming in the San Luis Valley has a very fundamental challenge. Current levels of water extraction cannot be sustained. Land must necessarily be trimmed from production. Simpson attended the CRES conference, he confided later, because he was interested in how renewable energy–solar, in particular–can leave his farming-based communities economically whole. He was at the meeting to inform himself for his work as a state legislator but also as director of the Rio Grande Water Conservancy District, the agency that must oversee those cuts in water.
Just how the CRES conference may influence Simpson in his duties as a state legislator cannot be said. Only occasionally can dots be directly connected. But he was there, listening intently.
That has been the role of CRES from its founding in Golden during a time when solar was still expensive and the near-term risks of climate change not as clearly defined. It has been, first and foremost, an educational forum, but also a place for people focused on renewable energy to connect and sometimes take direct action, as in advocacy on behalf of the nation’s first voter-initiated renewable energy mandate. At times, CRES has also articulated visions that have resulted in the bills considered and then passed by state legislators.
Many of the challenges that 25 years ago seemed so imposing have now been surmounted. Renewable energy has become the first, not the last, option in electrical generation.
Has CRES outlived its purpose? Certainly not. If old arguments against renewables about cost and integration have been dismantled, renewables must still be scaled even more rapidly than has now occurred if the worst of climate change impacts are to be avoided. There are questions about the impediments to transmission and the proper role of large and central renewables vs. local renewable resources such as rooftop solar. There are questions about the role of storage and its formats, the role of nuclear—if any, and how agriculture can be integrated into decarbonization.
Too, the atmospheric situation has deteriorated so rapidly that the question of mechanisms to draw carbon dioxide from the sky has become legitimate.
Colorado is well on its way to achieving penetration of renewables that was unimaginable even a decade ago. That summit is within sight. But beyond lie many other mountains yet to be climbed. No, CRES has not outlived its purpose.
Coming together of minds
Colorado was a logical place for solar supporters to gather. The state’s 300 days of sunshine is a cliché that happens to be true. It ranks sixth among the 50 states in average annual sunlight.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory also played a major role ithe creation of CRES. The laboratory was established in 1977 as the Solar Energy Research Institute, or SERI, whose second director was Denis Hayes. As president of the student body at Stanford University in 1970, Hayes helped organize the first Earth Day.
Creation of SERI brought others to Colorado who then figure into the creation of CRES and, more broadly, Colorado’s emergence as a national leader. One of them was Ron Larson, a figure with deep and continuous presence in CRES since its founding in 1996.
In 1972, though, Larson was a young professor of electrical engineering in Atlanta at Georgia Tech who focused on a narrow component of electromagnetics with implications for capabilities of the U.S. military.
Larson wanted more, to scratch a career itch. He applied and was then chosen to represent IEEE, the professional engineering and technology association, as a Congressional fellow. He planned to return to Georgia after a year in Washington. He did not. Something happened during his first week in Washington that profoundly altered his career path—and that of the nation. Arab oil producing states in the Mideast announced an embargo of exports to the United States.
Priorities in Washington shifted dramatically. Larson went to work for the House Science Committee, where he was assigned to work on two solar bills.
Solar photovoltaics, which now has capacity to generate electricity for less than $1 a watt, with prices still descending, then cost 100 times as much. That expense limited its use primarily to exploration of space. The federal budget for research was small, just $4 million to $5 million, but there was strong, bipartisan enthusiasm to pursue solar research. The oil embargo fueled even greater interest, mostly in solar heating for space and water.
“Barry Goldwater wanted solar energy,” says Larson, referring to the U.S. senator from Arizona who was also the 1964 Republican presidential candidate. “Renewable energy then was bipartisan. Everybody was for it.”
A law quickly passed in 1974 authorized creation of SERI. Golden, Colorado was chosen for the site. With a position secured at the laboratory, Larson and his wife, Gretchen, arrived July 5, 1977.
When the Larsons arrived, another young man in Colorado was already devoted to advancing use of solar energy. Morey Wolfson had been a graduate student at the University of Colorado in 1970 when he organized the nation’s third-largest Earth Day celebration. Soon after he set out to learn what was known about solar energy. The Denver Public Library had 35 books on squirrels, he discovered, but just one book on solar. That book had been checked out just once in the six years after being published in 1964.
The takeaway conclusion of that book, “Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy,” by Farrington Daniels, was that there “was no technical reason why direct use of the sun’s energy cannot be the basis for the energy needs of an advanced economy.”
From 1973 to 1983, Wolfson operated the Solar Bookstore in Denver at Colfax Avenue and York Street. The store was devoted to renewable energy, and the mail-order business patronized by architects and others kept it afloat, if barely. Wolfson also helped found various environmental groups in Denver before closing the bookstore and joining the staff of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission in 1985. At the PUC, among other assignments, Wolfson was executive assistant to the three commissioners.
Among the commissioners was Ron Lehr, an important figure in Colorado’s energy transition. Lehr’s first glimpse of the issues with which he has been engaged occurred in 1965 when his sister and a friend rafted down the soon-to-be submerged Glen Canyon in southern Utah. She was outraged at the imminent sacrifice of such a beautiful canyon, which the Sierra Club had been working to preserve. The club’s position included the argument that the hydroelectric production from Glen Canyon Dam was unneeded because coal was plentiful on the nearby Kaiparowits Plateau. “It’s important to be humble over time,” Lehr observes wryly.
In 1976, the writings of Amory Lovins, a MacArthur Genius Award prize-winner, captivated Lehr. Reacting to the oil embargo had inspired Lovins to fundamentally rethink the energy equation to include demand as well as supply. His 1976 essay in Foreign Affairs, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken,” changed energy debates permanently.
The path Lovins advocated “combines a prompt and serious commitment to efficient use of energy, rapid development of renewable energy sources matched in scale and in energy quality to end-use needs, and special transitional fossil-fuel technologies. This path, a whole greater than the sum of its parts, diverges radically from incremental past practices to pursue long-term goals.”
The message from Lovins, then revolutionary, today remains profound in its implications. “You read it and the world shifts,” says Lehr of Lovins’s essay. “Thinking about energy could never be the same.”
Lehr downplays his contributions since then. Others say he has been a pivotal figure.“I just happened to be standing there,” he says. “My life has been like that. I have been close to those insights and have been able to pick them up and repeat them and help to make change happen.”
The Colorado in which Denver natives Lehr and Wolfson came of age and to which Larson arrived in the 1970s was blessed– some would say cursed–with fossil fuels of all kinds. It had hydrocarbons in various chemical forms and geological settings, along with methane and coal. Too, it was proximate to the vast inland sea of hydrocarbons in Wyoming and Montana called the Powder River Basin. But it also had outstanding wind and solar resources and intellectual capital.
As Colorado’s population between 1960 and 1980 expanded from 1.8 million to 2.9 million, demand for electricity grew even more robustly. Utilities responded with ever-larger coal-burning plants, the last (until Comanche 3 in 2010) completed in 1984. Coal was cheap, the pollution it produced accepted as a cost of progress as it had been since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
As for solar – well, it was the stuff for space missions, not for earthly tasks. Or so went the conventional logic.
Telling was the fate of the institute that had drawn Larson to Colorado. After Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he dismantled the solar panels on the White House that his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had erected. Carter had also traveled to Colorado in 1978 to dedicate the new solar energy research institute. Reagan’s administration three years later slashed the budget from $130 million to $50 million.
The solar research didn’t cease, but it slowed through the Reagan years.
Hayes, the director, told Rolling Stone magazine’s Jeff Goodell in a 2020 interview that the day he got that news was the most horrible day of his life. “It was harder than the days my parents died,” he said. “I spent much of the next year writing letters of recommendation for people, many of whom I had lured out to this thing, and then they suddenly had their lives shattered.”
Steve Andrews was among the contractors who was let go. He remembers well the remarks of Hayes in announcing the news. Hayes called the Department of Energy administrators “dull gray men in dull gray suits thinking dull, gray thoughts.” Instead of taking a scalpel to the skin, he added, the Department of Energy had taken a meat-ax to the muscle of the SERI staff.
“My recollection is that after those remarks, he was required to leave the building a few hours sooner than had been planned,” say Andrews. “The DOE dudes didn’t want more scorched earth salvos delivered by Denis.”
Larson also left. His next career move was to Khartoum, in the African country of Sudan, on an assignment by Georgia Tech as part of a U.S. Administration for International Development mission. Later, he returned to Golden but never to Georgia.
The birth of CRES
CRES was preceded by several grassroots organizations in the Denver area with the same general mission.
The Denver Solar Energy Society, which was later reorganized as the Denver Energy Resource Center, was similar to CRES in that it had monthly educational meetings. It even had paid staff for a time as interest surged in solar during the early 1980s because of federal tax credits adopted in 1977. As many as 400 people attended meetings. Tours of solar homes were conducted, aided by 40-page brochures.
Then, in 1985, federal tax credits expired. Solar enthusiasm vanished.
A national advocacy group, the American Solar Energy Society, or ASES, obviously saw a more prominent role for solar, as did those working at the laboratory in Golden that had been defunded. By 1991, the tide had turned again. President George H.W. Bush visited Golden that year to mark the designation of the solar laboratory as a national laboratory with a broader mission. It became NREL.
Larson says CRES was launched at the instigation of ASES, using funds inherited from the then-defunct Denver solar organization. In its very earliest years, it had a huge crossover in membership with NREL employees. It still has crossover, if not quite as much.
That interplay with NREL was reflected in the initial leadership of H.M. “Hub” Hubbard. He had arrived in Colorado to lead SERI after Hayes was fired.
“Hubbard was a very well-known solar expert in the mid-1990s,” says Larson. “I was behind him in line for dinner and asked him if he would be willing to be chair of CRES, and he said yes. We could not have had a more important person for the first year. In my mind, we might not have been a success without Hubbard.”
Hubbard gave CRES instant credibility and facilitated NREL as the meeting place for several years. Wolfson—who left the PUC in 1999—helped coordinate some of that CRES programming in his new job at NREL. Many of those presenting informational sessions then—and continuing today—were researchers from NREL. Meetings were attended by 20 to 50 people.
Volunteerism was at the core of CRES. Notable was the effort by CRES co-founder Paul Notari, who had been head of the Technical Information Branch at SERI and then NREL. For 14 years he was the publisher and editor of CRES News, a lively newsletter for members from the founding until 2010. Notari was instrumental in early CRES outreach. He identified and contacted almost 500 people in the Denver area who were interested in solar. He wrote news releases and proposed story ideas to local media. In this and other ways, Notari helped knit together disparate individuals and topics into a fluid but somewhat cohesive whole.
Doug Seiter remembers getting involved with the new organization soon after arriving in Colorado in 1997 as an employee of the Department of Energy. Later, he served two terms as president of the board of directors.
“It was the choir, for the most part, people already engaged in the industry or very much interested in doing something in renewable energy,” he says. This collection of like-minded people helped build enthusiasm and coalesce motivation.
Larry Sherwood, the executive director of ASES from 1988 to 2001, concurs that Colorado’s solar conversation in the 1990s revolved around NREL. CRES provided an outlet “for some brilliant minds at NREL to engage in policy or educational types of activities that they were interested in but weren’t part of their research at NREL,” says Sherwood, who would later become a member of the board of directors for several terms. “I think CRES definitely benefitted from those people.”
CRES also has advocacy in its DNA. That was manifested relatively soon after CRES was organized in a case before state utility regulators about a potential wind project in southeastern Colorado. It was likely the first time that the costs of integrating wind into utility operations were decided in a public record.
Coming next:: A team approach by advocates of renewable energy yields a victory when a compelling case is made for a major wind farm in southeastern Colorado.