Chris Hansen, two other legislators, review 2021 bills and look forward to 2022 session
by Allen Best
Colorado in 2019 adopted an economy-wide decarbonization goal of 90% by 2050. It’s not enough, says State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver. He says Colorado needs to go for 100% by 2040.
“We’re running out of time. Everybody here knows that,” said Hansen at a fundraiser in Denver on Sept. 14 for Solar CitiSuns Colorado and its parent non-profit, New Energy Colorado. “To cut to the chase, what do we need to do next year? Ninety percent by 2050 is not going to cut it. We have to be net zero by 2040—period.”
To achieve that elevated goal, he said, legislators must start bearing down on hard-to-decarbonize economic sectors, most prominently the carbon content of construction materials and agriculture.
“Those really need a lot of attention,” he added. “They will get a lot of attention in the next few sessions.”
Hansen, a member of the powerful Joint Budget Committee, also suggested state tax policy might be tinkered with to provide incentives by exempting construction materials with low-emission profiles from the state sales tax.
Another possibility is to expand 1974 legislation that classified some activities, such as new or expanded water diversion projects, as being matters of statewide concern and hence subject to state and local regulation. In this case, the statewide concern of the 1041 regulations could be expanded to include building codes, to require local jurisdictions to adopt more recent codes with more exacting requirements for energy efficiency. Until recently, some towns and counties had no building codes at all.
Election-year legislation agendas tend to be lighter, and Gov. Jared Polis in 2022 will face re-election as will many Democratic legislators. But Hansen and two other state legislators who spoke at the fundraiser said they have no plans to slow down. All three indicated they have fires in their bellies.
“We have to do more. We have to be more aggressive. We have to (more rapidly) decarbonize faster these really hard sectors,” said Hansen.
The fundraiser was held on the deck of a solar supporter in the River North, or RiNo, area, overlooking a parking lot for Coors Field. Admission was $75 a person, slightly less for couples. Many were seeing each other for the first time in almost two years.
The 2021 legislative session was, in the words of Hansen, “amazingly productive,” an assessment few would disagree with—although some would argue that it was productive in going down an ill-advised path.
Hansen says he is proudest of a bill that he got passed with broad bipartisan support that seeks to encourage greater cooperation among utilities in transmission planning and nudge utilities into creating of electricity markets that enable greater sharing. Several chief executives of utilities have said that creation of such markets will be essential to realizing deep decarbonization goals.
Buildings were the focus of several overlapping bills approved by legislators as they sought to put legs under their economy-wide carbon reduction goals. Most salient was the clean-heat bill, which gives gas utilities firm targets of 22% reduction in emissions.
“It will take a lot of (electric) induction stoves. It will take a lot of everything to get there,” said Hansen. “But together we are going to do it, and I think we can surprise ourselves with our success as we look back over the next 5 or 6 years.”
State Rep. Alex Valdez, a Democrat, co-sponsored several bills with Hansen, including the beneficial electrification bill that provides incentives for home and building owners to shift from gas to electric.
“One of the things I learned while working on this bill is that there is actually a lobby that goes out and tells people, ‘They are trying to come for our gas stove.’” That’s a narrative we fight each and every day,” he says.
He pointed to the superior performance of electric induction stoves. “We are not taking anything away. We are enabling the future where people can live and breathe and drink the water,” he said.
Reared in Aurora, Valdez co-founded what has become one of Colorado’s largest solar companies EcoMark Solar, in what was to become known as the River North, or RiNo, district. His district straddles downtown Denver and includes RiNo.
He cited improved air quality in Denver and along the Front Range as a central focus of his energy and climate work next session. “Air quality is why I do this job,” he said.
Valdez also vowed to continue to legislate “until I get Suncor right.” The refinery is near Globeville and other lower-income neighborhoods along I-70. During his legislative career, he has sponsored three bills that got passed. Legislation this year added a second monitor for detecting emissions of “a bunch of crazy stuff like benzene.” He did not share what exactly he has in mind next year.
he greatest opportunity Valdez sees lies in vehicle electrification. Transportation is not the problem. Rather it’s the exhausts from internal combustion engines. “The future lies in taking the engines out of cars. I don’t expect to take people out of cars,” said Valdez, the chairman of the House Energy and Environment Committee. He believes Colorado’s efforts need to be configured around the much greater force of the federal policies, but didn’t share particulars of his legislative plans.
State Rep. Tracey Bernett, a Democrat from Longmont in her first term, said she began work in June, shortly after the 2021 session ended, on bills to be introduced in 2022. But she was even more sparse in the details of what she has in mind.
An engineer by profession with an impressive history of marathons, Bernett was in the middle of several ambitious pieces of legislation—including one that had her talking about concrete on the floor of the House of Representatives at 10 p.m. one Saturday night late in the session.
The process used to create concrete, she explained, produces 14% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. The bill she sponsored directs crucial state agencies to think about the emissions associated with the products being used in buildings and transportation and directs them to use lesser-emission products when available.
For example, a manufacturer located near Florence, along the Arkansas River in south-central Colorado, produces cement with fewer associated greenhouse emissions.
Democrats have had majorities in both chambers for the last three sessions. “None of this—zippo—if we didn’t have Democrats in charge of the Senate and House,” said Hansen. “We know that. We tried in 2017 and 2018, and every one of those bills, with a couple of exceptions, didn’t make it” past the Republican-controlled Senate, he said.
Now, Hansen senses a shift in momentum, an even greater appetite for transformative legislation.
“I think we have an opening into conservative circles that we have never had before,” he said. “I think people are seeing these fires, the woods they like to hike in, the trees drying, the ski season a month shorter. You can feel it,” he said, as one of the audience members chimed in with “hurricanes.”
First elected in 2016, Hansen represents a district in southeast Denver. That’s a world apart from the small farming town in western Kansas where he grew up. He showed an interest in politics, as reflected in the fact he was student body president at Kansas State University while he studied nuclear engineering. He then continued his studies, first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then at Oxford, where he received a Ph.D. in economic geography.
even years ago, he said, he was making a comfortable living, traveling the world solving complex energy problems. “I really enjoyed this,” he said. But then he had an epiphany.
“Is this really why I am on this planet, to increase the fiduciary return for my board?” he remembers thinking. “No, this is not really why I am here.” He began knocking on doors, campaigning to become a legislator, “because I wanted to work on climate change. I said, ‘I think I have some ideas that are useful and have some skills that I have worked on for 15 to 20 years that I can bring to the party.’”
A cross-country runner in high school, Hansen likened the skills needed to address climate challenge to those required by decathlon athletes. Decathlon for men has 10 track and field events from sprints to longer distances, pole vaulting to javelin throwing.
“You have to be good on the politics, you have to be good on the campaigns, you have to be good at the nitty-gritty of the policy and technical aspects,” he said.
Hansen vowed determination to keep on the same pace. “We are not going to let up. We are going to do another 15 to 20 bills next year and another 15 to 20 bills after that.”
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