Get Big Pivots


Senate president Fenberg takes a hard question about his choice of a committee for the first hearing: it was a statement bill.


by Allen Best

State Sen. Steve Fenberg speaks succinctly and carefully and, for the most part, quickly. There’s a reason he’s the president of the Colorado Senate.

But when given a hard question about SB24-159, which proposes to begin slow down and then, in 2030, stop permitting of new oil-and-gas drilling in Colorado, he answered with greater hesitation, circling around the question before answering it.

Why, asked Empower Hour’s Steve Whitaker, had Fenberg assigned the bill to the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, where it “faces near-certain death,” as opposed to the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee, where it had a much stronger change of passing? The same thing had occurred the prior year, he noted.

“The legislative process is messy,” Fenberg finally replied,” and things are not always obvious.” It was, he explained a “messaging bill,” which he did not define except

to say that bill sponsors never expected it to pass.

Depending upon what the sponsor says, it can make leadership look bad, he said. The sponsor, he added, did not make a request (that the bill get assigned to the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee).

”I am sure this is an explanation a lot of people don’t want to hear,” he added, “but I also think it’s important to be honest.”

The other legislators — all Democrats and state representatives with districts partly or entirely in Boulder County – also answered. Rep. Kyle Brown, whose district includes Broomfield County, said if the bill came before him, he would vote for it. So would Rep. Junie Joseph.

Rep. Judy Amabile gave a more nuanced answer: “I generally support us phasing out fossil fuel use. I think it’s a worthwhile effort. The devil is always in the details. We also have to make sure we are covering all our bases when we do that.”

Colorado still does not have enough renewables (or other technology) to generate the electricity we use, she said, implicitly referring to the natural gas plants that are part of the current mix – and almost sure to be part of the mix for several decades to come, even by the admission of some utility managers who have decarbonization goals.

Senate sponsors of the bill are Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis and Sen. Kevin Priola. The Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee has not yet scheduled a hearing.


Many bills in the legislative oven about the unsexy sides of energy transition

Empower Hour has a monthly video session with a revolving variety of guests, and this one was uncommonly lively.

The legislators gave an overview of their environmental agenda. Fenberg said conversations are occurring around land use and growth and water, including questions about transportation “and generally where we are in this moment in Colorado history where we have grown and projections of continued growth, and how do we do so in a way that’s  responsible and is taking into account climate change and our environment, the potential dangers of things like wildfires and various climate-induced events.”

Fenberg said he had several bills planned around ozone and air quality, expansion of rail, and also bills that will modernize the grid and also to advance community solar.

See: Rethinking electricity (and energy) at the very local level,  Big Pivots Jan. 24, 2024

Brown said he will be sponsoring the modernizing-the-grid bill. He said it seeks to ”help create a grid that is ready and able to handle all of the distributed sources of energy that will come with decarbonizing and making sure that our electric vehicles and solar panels have a grid that we can plug into and that we have a workforce that is able to work on that grid.”

That bill, he conceded, “is not the sexiest bill, but it is essential to allow us to be sure we can transition to a climate friendly energy economy.”

Brown also plans a bill that will “encourage local governments to be in the business of taking climate action,” as Boulder, Louisville, Lafayette and other communities have been doing. He did not offer specifics.


Polis not to blame for why community choice energy isn’t going forward

Legislators, responding to questions, said they supported the idea of community choice for energy in principle but the details are more difficult. A state task force report said essentially the same thing.

Has Gov. Jared Polis and his energy office killed the idea because he wants to protect the monopoly of Xcel Energy? No, it’s not that simple, several said.

Brown said he and Amabile had worked on the issue over the summer. But they found that it wasn’t just Gov. Polis or the Colorado Energy Office that found problems with community choice energy – shortened hereafter to CCE. It was also the solar industry, labor unions, even environmental groups.

“We tried, but there was no reason to bring a bill that would die in its first committee,” Brown said. He promised to continue working on it. “The politics around this are hard, and it’s not just the governor.”

Polis, said Amabile, believed in competition, “The fear of the Colorado Energy Office and some environmental groups is that this policy –which is a very sweeping change – could actually cost us in our move to more renewables.”

A better goal, some stakeholders told the legislators, is to figure out a way to ensure that Xcel Energy is passing along the lower cost of renewables to ratepayers.

“I am not a statement bill person .I understand what some people want to do with that. But I have  maybe less time in life than some other people,” said Amabile, who has let her hair during the last year grow into its natural gray.

Fenberg agreed. “The opposition to this is not the governor. It’s not Xcel Energy. Of course Xcel opposes it. But that’s not the reason it’s not going forward. There are a lot of interests reliant upon the existing system, and it’s really hard to get those interests on board with the disruption to their interests, at least in the short term. That (includes) labor, and if labor is opposed to the bill, for a segment of the Democratic caucus there is no further conversation,” he said

“It’s a big, challenge, and incredibly frustrating, but that is the reality at the moment.”

Joseph was fully supportive and said Polis, because he believes in competition, likely supports it too. “There are a lot of things to work out in this bill.”


Does Colorado need legislation that will move demand management forward?

Legislators were asked about their interest in supporting legislation that would enhance demand-management programs, presumably by investor-owned utilities.

The question showed just how conversant several of the Boulder County legislators are with the subtleties of energy policy.

Amabile recalled sharing a plane ride with a researcher from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory 20 years ago who had explained the concept to her. “It’s about time,” she said.

Brown — whose professional area of expertise is health care — talked about running his dishwasher in the middle of the night.

Senate President Steve Fenberg and State Rep. Junie Joseph

Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, speaks at legislative forum in January. Top, a pumping jack in Dacona in 2021. Photos/Allen Best

Fenberg – who was the prime sponsor of a bill in the 2023 session that shook the cage of Xcel at least in a minor way – explained the basic problem with the regulatory model of investor-owned utilities

“I would support it at a bare minimum,” and several steps beyond, he said.

The problem, he added is that utilities, especially the IOUs, have no real incentives to roll out energy efficiency in mass because, if the decision is whether to build more stuff or create more efficiency to the consumer, they will usually err on the idea of the former.

He didn’t cite Amory Lovins, who said you don’t care about what the electrons that keep your beer cool, only that it’s cool.

Fenberg said he and Brown are working on legislation that will provide statutory direction about virtual power plants. “We’re still basically using technology from a hundred years ago in the electric grid, even though it’s part of the existential crisis we are facing. A lot of the electrical grid could be improved if we used software better.”

Allen Best
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