The organization grew and then decided to spread its wings. It didn’t work out, raising questions of how a group like CRES should operate. What it did do was expand with two new chapters in Colorado.
by Allen Best
CRES has had its ups and downs, its time of growth and expanding influence and then times of retraction.
Annual conferences have been held but with some lengthy gaps. The first, held in 1998 at Snow Mountain Ranch, between Granby and Fraser, was regarded as a splendid retreat. However, CRES leaders decided it would be better to hold conferences in places more accessible to the broader public and with greater geographic diversity. Accordingly, the 2002 conference was held in Colorado Springs with Amory Lovins as the featured speaker. The next was in Montrose, followed by the University of Denver, with still others in Fort Collins, Pueblo, and then again in Montrose.
Remarks made by speakers at the conference in Steamboat Springs in June 2007 reveal the rapid change during the last 15 years.
Organizers had recruited Stan Lewandowski, then general manager of Intermountain Rural Electric Association (now called CORE Electric Cooperative) to explain himself. He was known for his embrace of coal and for his financial contribution to Pat Michaels, a climate scientist who argued global warming will cause relatively minor and even beneficial charges. Renewables, said Lewandowski, were expensive, and he refused to socialize their cost to the detriment of elderly people on fixed income.
Now, that same cooperative—under new leadership—is hurrying to get out of its ownership in what will likely be Colorado’s last operating coal plant, Comanche 3.
Chuck Kutscher, then an engineer at NREL (and now a member of the CRES policy committee), also spoke, stressing the importance of the “beef” of energy efficiency to the “sizzle” of renewables. Paul Bony, who was then with Delta-Montrose Electric Association, told about the 100 ground-source heat pumps whose installation he had overseen.
Keynote speaker at the 2007 conference in Steamboat Springs was Patty Limerick, a historian from the University of Colorado-Boulder, who talked about energy conversions of the past 200 years. She warned against expecting immediate change. Even adoption of fossil fuels, if “astonishing in its scale and scope of change,” did not arrive as “one, coherent sequential change.” Fossil fuels, she noted, had lifted women out of household drudgery.
And she left listeners to ponder this thought: “The most consequential question of the early 21st century is who controls the definition of progress.”
Membership in CRES grew from 200 to 2,000 during the 21st century’s first decade. Sheila Townsend, executive director from 2001 to 2011, deftly managed all of CRES’s events, including fundraising, the group’s annual conference, Tour of Solar Homes, and annual party, supported by well-staffed teams of volunteer members over the years.
The Tour of Solar Homes has been an annual event since the beginning of CRES—and an important money raiser, too. Starting in 1996, the tour was focused on Golden but then expanded to the Denver metro area under the umbrella of New Energy Colorado. The tours are part of ASES’s national network, conducted over many years, to showcase green-built and sustainable homes.
From its roots in Golden, driven largely by SERI/NREL employees who sought a greater public impact for renewables, CRES also added new chapters elsewhere in Colorado. Some had lasting power, others not so much. For example, chapters had been created in Durango and Montrose in the early 2000’s. They didn’t survive. The populations were relatively small, and the distances to other population centers too great.
The chapter founded in Pueblo in 2003 had greater success. Tom Corlett and Judy Fosdick founded SECRES (for South East) with the hope of advancing distributed generation and helping develop support for Amendment 37. In time, the chapter gravitated to Colorado Springs, where its current organizer Jim Riggins points with pride to outreach efforts with youngsters in local schools as well as some collaborations with the local military institutions. “Our goal is to inform and educate in a fashion as unbiased as we can and let people make their own decisions based on facts,” he says.
NCRES (for Northern) has cut a notable swath in Larimer County. Jim Manuel had been active in CRES in Jefferson County and other precursor groups in Denver, including the Energy Network, before moving to Loveland. There and in Fort Collins he found kindred spirits who would sometimes meet at restaurants, other times at Colorado State University.
Manuel says he began thinking that it would make sense to be formally affiliated with CRES in an organizational structure similar to that of the Colorado Mountain Club. That latter group has its largest membership in Denver but has chapters at various locations around Colorado. One advantage was avoiding the necessity of duplicating non-profit status by forming a different 501(c)(3).
Alex Blackmer was asked if his off-the-grid solar home in Redstone Canyon, west of Fort Collins, could be included in the 1998 solar tour. His friends who organized that event then started attending NCRES gatherings at the Odell Brewery.
“The meetings were always great networking events and gave me a range of valuable business contacts that have served me to this day,” says Blackmer, who later became a state board member. “In fact, I met my two current business partners through my NCRES interactions. We now a run a nation-wide solar financing company (Solaris Energy) that has been a player in the exponential growth of the solar industry in the last 10 years,” he says.
“I think that my work with NCRES and CRES added greatly to my ability to grow Solaris by making the personal connections and contacts necessary to put all the pieces together.”
Blackmer says that without CRES, he’s not sure Solaris would ever have grown into the successful business that it is. “And it would not have had the national impact that it is now having,” he adds.
Broad influences of NCRES and other chapters can be hard to document. Peter Eberle, the current chair of the state board of directors as well as the leader of NCRES, believes that NCRES, working in concert with other groups, has nudged Fort Collins toward its ambitions to redefine energy. The community’s energy deliberations have drawn national attention, sometimes eclipsing Colorado’s better-known university town.
Blackmer concurs, citing the “steady pressure from the bottom to move the city in the direction of more renewable energy.”
Wade Troxel, a mechanical engineering professor at Colorado State University who has been personally and professionally involved in pushing that transition, confirms being influenced by CRES programming. He sometimes attended NCRES meetings, occasionally asking questions. “I was very aware of NCRES,” says Troxell, who was mayor from 2015 to 2021.
The 501(c)(3) non-profit status for CRES is formally based in Fort Collins in conjunction with Colorado State University’s Powerhouse Energy Campus. That’s where postal mail goes.
A stumble, then a rebirth
Still sensitive more than a decade later is the 2010 decision to spread the organization’s wings by hiring a full-time director. In the eyes of at least some of its members, the organization tended to be “clubby.” Everybody knew everybody else, and the atmosphere was collegial.
But in terms of impact? Well, board members believed CRES could step up its game.
Carol Tombari was among the board members who voted to hire Tony Frank, the clear favorite because of his experience at the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.
She describes the times around 2010 as difficult. Yes, there had been substantial wins: Colorado Green in 2001, Amendment 37 in 2004, and the 57 bills passed during the Ritter Administration. But public policy was a slog. Advocates were finding it difficult to make their case.
“We did not want to hire somebody who was like us, because we clearly had not succeeded,” says Tombari, now retired from NREL and living in Texas. “We needed somebody who had much more of an entrepreneurial approach than we did. Some of us were academics, some of us were scientists. We weren’t entrepreneurial.”
Tony Frank emerged as the clear favorite. He wanted an office, so a lease was negotiated for space at a cost of $3,000 per year in a former school in North Denver repurposed for non-profit office space. A salary of $55,000 per year was negotiated along with modest insurance and other benefits. The bill, including office space, for the new director came to $68,590 for his first year.
The director was to raise the profile of CRES in the Legislature and elsewhere. CRES was to become the go-to organization for renewable energy in Colorado.
CRES became a partner in creating what was then called the Denver Sustainability Park in the Five Points neighborhood. From his previous experiences with non-profit organizations, Frank was able to introduce CRES volunteers to key state legislators.
But the executive director—this is crucial—was required to figure out how to pay his or her salary. This happened, but not enough. Possibly a factor was that Frank was hired even as the effects of the 2009-2010 recession lingered. When he resigned in February 2012 after nearly two years at the helm, the treasury had drawn down to $59,000. He was replaced by a part-time executive director.
‘We all knew it was risky,” says Tombari. “We felt it was a risk worth taking. It just didn’t work out.”
What lessons can be drawn from this? The simplest takeaway is that CRES over-reached.
The deeper question, though, is what does it take to create an organization with impact? The education that has always been front-and-center of CRES has impact, and grassroots activism has impact. But volunteerism usually needs to be anchored by staff to achieve deeper leverage.
Michael Haughey arrived on the board in 2010 after the decision had largely been made to hire a full-time director. He says he counseled fellow members against the hiring without first creating a better plan to raise money.
“The expectation was that the new director would raise the profile of CRES and money will come. That was the hope, but it didn’t work.”
In a recent interview, he cited the Colorado chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, which created a book of instruction on LEED certification. It sold nationally and continues to sell—creating the revenue to pay the salary of full-time director. With its arsenal of videos, CRES might now have something similar, he says.
Larry Christiansen, another board member at the time, applauds the effort to professionalize CRES and to add muscle to its mission. To be taken seriously, he says, an organization needs full-time staff working from offices.
While CRES temporarily elevated, it didn’t get far enough along to make a legitimate “ask” for funding. Neither the executive director nor board members felt comfortable in making that ask.
“We did not have a board that was able to go out and ask for money or bring money to the table,” he says. “To get an organization off the ground, you need some fundraisers on the board.”
Here’s a question to ponder:
So, why do some organizations immediately spread their wings and others do not? The comparison that may be most relevant is Boulder-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Project [SWEEP]. It was founded in 2001, five years after CRES. It now has a staff of 18 spread out across Colorado as well as other Southwestern states. SWEEP definitely gets invited to the table for policy discussions.
Howard Geller, its founder, had previously been in Washington D.C., where he had established a reputation. That likely made fundraising easier.
Two new chapters
Distributed energy has been one theme for the transition to renewables. That has also been the model for CRES. From three chapters, CRES has grown to five strong chapters during the last decade
Boulder’s chapter, called BCRES, was organized in Boulder in 2014. Kirsten Frysinger, one of the three co-founders, had graduated in 2013 from the University of Colorado-Boulder with a masters’ degree in environmental studies. When Roger Alexander, then the board chair, asked for volunteers from the Boulder area to start the chapter, she enthusiastically raised her hand. She had a strong motivation.
“I needed to find work,’ says Frysinger. “I needed to network with people.”
It took a few years, but she succeeded. Having coffee with CRES member Leslie Glustrom, she learned of a job opening at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project for an operations manager. She applied for the job at SWEEP and was hired.
The BCRES meetings, which were commonly attended by 50 to 100 people before covid, always begin with an invitation to job-seekers to announce themselves, their qualifications, and hopes. Job providers were then given time. At a September 2022 meeting, the first in-person gathering since covid, half of attendees were seeking jobs.
In Denver, MDCRES (for metro Denver) has become a significant player. A prominent figure there—and in the CRES policy and other groups—has been Jonathan Rogers. He arrived in Colorado in 2018 as an energy consultant. In that capacity he began seeking out professional groups. CRES emerged on that landscape. What he found was a refreshing change from Washington DC.
“It was all talk,” says Rogers of his time in Washington. “It was decades-long research and development, everybody was a consultant, and the only real buyer was the government. So we had the same conversations over and over again.”
Somewhat around the same time as Rogers joined CRES he took a job as the City of Denver’s representative in regulatory affairs. It was his job to build relationships with legislators and get immersed in affairs of the PUC, which operates in mostly arcane ways that can test the patience even of lawyers.
It’s one thing to pass a bill, he observes, but another yet to execute it. That, as the cliché goes, is where the rubber meets the road.
The covid pandemic caused MDCRES to shift its programming to online. Attendance jumped to 70 attendees, but then slackened in 2022 as other activities resumed. If convenient, online sessions deprive attendees the pleasure of face-to-face networking. CRES chapters altogether have been trying to strike the right balance.
In Jefferson County, Martin Voelker arrived to continue the thread of prior meetings at the Jefferson Unitarian Church. A native of Germany, Voelker had been a journalist before emigrating to the United States in 1997 with his wife, a college professor. In Boston, while his wife taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Voelker interviewed progressive speakers.
In 2004, the Voelker family moved to Golden where his wife had secured a professorship at the Colorado School of Mines. With the lower-priced real estate of Golden compared to that of Boston, there was enough financial comfort that Martin decided he did not need to chase a paycheck. Beginning in 2015, he began pouring his energy into assembling monthly programs for JCRES.
Voelker traces his epiphany, his desire to get more active, to the appearance in Boulder by Bill McKibben. Voelker had actually interviewed McKibben when in Boston, but he was galvanized by McKibben’s speech in Boulder during McKibben’s national tour following his compelling 2012 essay in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”
“Knowing stuff is fine and dandy, and if you don’t do anything about it, what is it really worth?” says Voelker.
Securing speakers has never been a problem for Voelker, given the proximity of NREL to other institutions in the Denver-Boulder area. He has filmed and edited dozens of the group’s events, building up a large on-line library of CRES and other presentations.
Other installments in this series:
Part 2: Why note wind?
Part 3: Why note wind?
And also: How Bill Ritter rode wind
Why support Big Pivots?
You need and value solid climate change reporting, and also the energy & water transitions in Colorado. Because you know that strong research underlies solid journalism, and research times take.
Plus, you want to help small media, and Big Pivots is a 501(c)3 non-profit.
Big grants would be great, but they’re rare for small media. To survive, Big Pivots needs your support. Think about how big pivots occur. They start at the grassroots. That’s why you should support Big Pivots. Because Big Pivots has influence in Colorado, and Colorado matters in the national conversation.