As a farm boy, Bill Ritter loathed wind. But when he ran for governor, renewables put wind at his back.
by Allen Best
Bill Ritter Jr., the district attorney in Denver, knew nothing about energy when he decided to make a run at the governor’s mansion. He knew wind, though. He had grown up east of Aurora, near Buckley Air Force Base. “We leased a farm where we had cows, chickens, and horses. It was small. We started out with a section of ground that is near what is now Mississippi and Gun Club Road and then started farming a half-section on Sand Creek, north of Stapleton. It’s where the DIA employee parking lot is now,” he says.
“I hated wind,” says Ritter, recalling memories of driving tractors smothered in dust kicked up by spring winds.
Wolfson remembers meeting Ritter and his wife, Jeannie, as they were dining at a Mexican restaurant on Denver’s Santa Fe Drive called El Noa Noa. He debated whether it was proper to interrupt the dinner of the Ritters, but then boldly approached them and offered his knowledge. Wolfson remembers Jeannie Ritter poking the candidate in the ribs and telling him: “Accept that offer.”
And so they met a few days later, Wolfson the tutor, Ritter the eager and bright student who Wolfson says asked all the right questions. Ritter studied many issues. Eventually he produced a 54-page document of his plans under the heading of “The Colorado Promise.”
Top photo: Carbondale’s Randy Udall conferred with Gov. Bill Ritter during the 2009 Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference. Udall, who died in 2013, was a beloved and influential participant in CRES during its early days, with his essays and analysis of energy topics even more relevant and insightful today. Photo/Paul Trantow
Ritter rode a narrow part of that promise to victory. He had conceived of an economy built around clean energy, dubbing it the “New Energy Economy.” But he didn’t make it central to his message until late in his campaign, in August or September of 2006.
The advertising team that Ritter had hired to create TV commercials wanted him in a small-town cafe talking with older people—well, older than he was then.
Ritter had a different idea. He wanted to be filmed standing in front of the 375-foot-tall wind turbines that John Stulp had shown him south of Lamar. The advertising team refused, he fired them, then hired a company who would make the commercial he wanted. His commercial about a new energy economy was a hit.
“That commercial resonated with people in a different way than other kinds of political commercials did,” says Ritter. He walked away with an easy victory in November 2006.
Ritter and like-minded legislators went on a tear. They upped the renewable portfolio standard for Xcel, this time with the consent of the utility, negotiating plans to replace coal with natural gas at two plants, and reformed what is now called the Colorado Oil &Gas Conservation Commission. During Ritter’s four years in office, 57 bills directly relating to clean energy or energy efficiency were passed. Just one bill had passed during the eight years of Ritter’s predecessor, Bill Owens. Later, during the eight years that John Hickenlooper was governor, the pace slackened again.
What role did CRES play in this? Wolfson had been an active member of CRES, but Ritter says he was not aware of CRES specifically until he had been governor for several years. Over time, he began to recognize familiar faces at bill signings and ribbon-cuttings of solar installations. In time, he connected the dots.
“The value of an organization like CRES is that in a world of creating policy, especially if you are ahead of yourself a bit, it’s good to have friends,” he says.
In 2009, Ritter signed HB08-1160, a law that extended solar net-metering to cooperative electrical utilities, at the farm near Niwot of Steve Szabo, a CRES member who later helped found the Boulder chapter.
While CRES provided the table for the bill signing, it was not commonly invited to the table the way Sierra Club or some environmental groups were. Still, Ritter sees an essential value in CRES and other such groups in advancing clean energy. “That’s one part of the policy puzzle, but it’s a very important part of it,” says Ritter of grassroots support.
Since 2007, when Ritter took office, wind capacity has taken off, growing from 290.8 megawatts to surpass 5,000 megawatts, accounting for nearly four-fifths of Colorado’s renewable energy production in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Capacity in Colorado is projected to double during the next few years
Xcel Energy took its defeats with Colorado Green and then Amendment 37 in stride. After that, it set out to meet elevated renewable levels, becoming a national role model. That hasn’t ended disagreements. Critics note that the company always figures out a way to produce handsome returns for its investors. That fact is unassailable. But it has become a different company from what it was early in the 21st century.
Next: CRES grew rapidly in membership and then decided to spread its wings. That didn’t turn out as hoped. Why? That’s a nagging, unanswered question.
What you may have missed in this series:
Part 2: Why note wind?
Part 3: Triumph at the polls