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A key figure in Colorado’s energy transition sees having greater impact from an office on the opposite side of Broadway in downtown Denver. Why? And about that big climate bill that he couldn’t get across the finish line last year. It’ll be back. What’s inside it?

 

by Allen Best

Chris Hansen was not a farm boy, but he grew up in a small town in the middle of farm country along the Kansas-Colorado border before leaving to pick up four advanced degrees: a bachelor’s in nuclear engineering from Kansas State and ending with his Ph.D. in economic geography from Oxford. Between he earned degrees in technology policy from MIT and civil engineering from a university in Johannesburg, South Africa.

He worked in Dubai, among other places, before coming back to what he calls home. After all, Denver is where people from western Kansas went for shopping and to see games. Broncos country, he says, includes Goodland, Kan.

As a state legislator, he has one very big bill this year related to energy and climate. Meanwhile, he’ll also be running for mayor of Denver.

Big Pivots met with him recently in an office building near the Colorado capitol to talk more narrowly about climate-related issues—and why he is willing to forsake the broader purview he has as a Colorado legislator for the narrow one of Denver.

 

Big Pivots: Why do you want to be mayor of Denver? 

I really started thinking hard about what was going on in Denver about a year ago. I had some outreach from some close friends who asked me to take a look at the race. And I really started doing that in earnest. I’m feeling—I think very similar to a lot of Denver voters right now—frustrated by where things are at in Denve r and feeling that we need a lot of focus and energy to tackle the problems that we’re up against.

Clearly downtown will need a lot of reinvestment and revitalization as we come out of the pandemic. Crime and issues of homelessness continue to be very acute in many parts of the city. And I think the transportation and housing issues are also very, very high on the agenda for Denver. And those are things I care deeply about.

Building on the work I’ve done with budgets, finance, tax policy, and the clean energy transition at the State Capitol —these are all things that are going to be highly relevant to what’s going on in Denver.

OK, but why would you want to be mayor of Denver in the clean energy transition as opposed to having the broader purview of Colorado?

The chance to lead at the local level is a massive opportunity. Denver can be the leading city in the country in this transition.

The biggest opportunities are, first, electrification of heating at residential and commercial levels. The city and county of Denver will need to lead on that, to accelerate it.

Second is electrification of local fleets. That takes two forms for the mayor of Denver. One, electrifying the city fleet and the city lawn equipment and trucks and cars. That is not a small number. And also making sure that we’ve got charging opportunities, especially in multi-family and in commercial buildings. That’s a place where the city has to lead.

Also, the next mayor will be renegotiating the franchise agreement with Xcel. That’s a once-in-a-decade opportunity to create real change and accelerate the emissions reduction. The mayor’s office is an incredible platform to lead on these issues.

 

The City of Denver has quite a lot of initiative in building electrification already. What more can you bring to that?

This is an area where I have a lot of professional expertise, especially in the system integration that will be required. Right now, we can’t electrify all the buildings downtown, because we don’t have enough electricity capacity. Some really vital infrastructure work has to go along with this transition, and the next mayor is going to have to tackle that.

 

Okay. And is it pertinent to point out that Denver has a strong-mayor form of government? The mayor has greater authority than do those in most towns and cities in Colorado, where administration is delegated to a hired manager?

Yes. You have tremendous ability to get great things done if you have a strong team.

 

You grew up in Goodland, Kansas, which may be west of the 100th meridian but which is at least an hour from where you can see mountains, even at sunset. Tell me about your relationship with Denver as a boy growing up in a town of 4,500 people in the midst of wheat country? Could you have imagined yourself running for mayor of Denver one day while you were a high-school harrier running cross country in places like Wray?

That’s right. I was a cross-country runner in high school. We had a lot of basketball games in Colorado. Some of our biggest high school rivals were Burlington, Yuma, and Wray.

Denver was sort of the center of gravity for us. If we needed to go shopping or go to a game, we’d come to Denver constantly because it was the closest big city and it was the closest airport.

In Goodland, we were on mountain time. Our local TV stations were all Denver stations. Our daily paper was The Denver Post. Ed Green was my weatherman. So I—we—always felt way more connected to Denver than any other place. And we were all Broncos fans. All of the people of Western Kansas are Broncos fans.

 

Goodland lies along I-70 three hours east of Denver. Photo/Kansas Tourism

Where’s the dividing line in Kansas between the Broncos and Chiefs?

Great question. It’s sort of like, you know, where’s the line between the Red Sox and the Yankees in Connecticut? I’m going to say roughly Salina.

 

Growing up in Goodland, could you imagine yourself being in Denver?

We were living overseas. I had been working on a big energy decarbonization project in Dubai. And our second son had just been born. And, you know, I had a job offer to stay overseas and continue to work in Singapore. We decided, no, we’re going to move home. Denver is very close to my family and also a place where we really wanted to rear our boys in public schools. And being involved with community. For us, Denver was a move home.

 

Being very worldly, how does that inform your perspective of Denver now?

My time living, working, and studying overseas is a really important part of who I am. It’s shaped me. It’s also given me a lot of ways to think about how we can make Denver a global leader on many of these important issues. I think my global experience is a big asset.

 

You mentioned working in Dubai. What sort of places elsewhere in the world did you live and work?

I lived in Johannesburg and worked on electricity issues there while I was studying for my master’s degree at the University of Witwatersrand. I did my field work for my doctoral dissertation in Western India. So I lived in Delhi and Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat, while I was doing that work. I spent four years in the UK during grad school near London.

 

You have said that your first bill in this legislative session will be a comprehensive package to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado. What constitutes improved state targets? I believe you want to set a target of 65% reduction by 2035.

That’s right. I introduced a version of this bill last year. We’ll come back this year with an improved version.

I was really worried that right now our current statutory construct is for a 30% reduction target for 2030 and a 2050 target of 90% reduction, with nothing between. That feels like a missing gap in our statutory framework. We need to have steady milestones to make sure we’re having steady progress. You don’t want to end up with a situation where you hit 50% by 2030, and then nothing, nothing, nothing. And then lots of action, at the end of the 2040s.

 

No midnight cram sessions?

Exactly. We can’t procrastinate. There’s a huge urgency to this work, and that’s why I feel like we need a statutory framework that recognizes those steady milestones, of tracking our progress.

 

How do you propose to reduce emissions from the agriculture sector?

There’s a huge opportunity. We’ve excluded by statute the ag sector even being part of the current (emission reduction) goals. I mean, ag is just shy of 10% of emissions in the state. I think there’s huge opportunity for producers to get paid to decarbonize. Wet and dry digesters from ag waste, particularly manure from feedlots and from dairies, is a huge opportunity. Sequestration of carbon through improved soil management practices. Reforestation can also be part of the overall picture.

This is what Colorado needs to get going on now. And I see it as a huge win-win for producers, basically creating new revenue streams because they are decarbonizing.

 

So if I understand what you did last year, I assume it’ll be somewhat similar this year. You had proposed a study. A lot of this stuff has been studied already. Why does Colorado need a new study?

ell, actually, it hasn’t. I mean, there has not been enough work done on the local conditions in Colorado. Certainly, there are many great studies out there about decarbonization options in the ag sector. But we need some of the detailed work to show a pathway for verifiable reductions.

And that’s the key point here. We’ve got a decent understanding broadly of how we can decarbonize, but now we have to be able to prove it. It’s not good enough just to say, oh, I changed my soil tilling technique and it leads to this many tons of sequestered carbon. We must have something that’s verifiable. Ultimately I think we need an easy way for those investments and changes to be monetized. That’s the missing piece that we need to get to work on.

A dairy herd near Fort Morgan in September 2021. Photo/Allen Best

Okay. We have many dairies in Colorado, and to my knowledge, not one of them participates in the opportunity to recapture methane.

That is changing rapidly. Many projects with Colorado dairies are in motion right now. You’re absolutely correct that they haven’t been completed or commissioned, but there are investments and proposals are being evaluated right now to move in that direction. There’s some really great new technology available for both wet and dry digesters. The dairies are great because the manure is more of a slurry, if I can put it that way. So it has more potential for creating methane and therefore more potential for reduction.

I think you’re going to see a lot of action in this space, particularly with the state statutes that we put in place around the Clean Heat Plan, because those are now eligible resources to qualify for those targets. And the support we’re now seeing from the federal bill, the Inflation Reduction Act.

 

How closely will this bill align with what you had last year that didn’t get over the finish line?

I think it will be improved. We are going to add a couple of things into the bill that were not part of the draft last year, including a section to encourage updating and modernizing transmission lines.

One piece missing from Colorado is a process called reconductoring, where you take existing power lines and essentially replace the 50-, 60-, 70-year-old conductors, the wires themselves, and replace ithem with modern conductors. And in some cases, that can increase the capacity on that line by 50% without having to do new towers, without having to disturb new corridors. I think that’s a huge opportunity for Colorado. I’ll be adding this to make sure we have enough transmission capacity to handle all of the new wind and solar facilities.

Transmission lines in Colorado’s Front Range near the community of Dacona in September 2022. Photo/Allen Best

Are Xcel Energy and Tri-State on board with this?

I’ve talked to both, and they like the idea of doing reconductoring because it is much easier to reconductor a line than it is to build something brand new. That, I think, has been a win-win for the customer because it’s cheaper than starting a brand-new project. And it’s something that the utilities and transmission companies can do more quickly.

 

Why do we need state legislation for them to do this if it makes so much sense?

What I would like to do is create a permitting advantage for reconductoring projects right now. If you reconduct or align, you essentially have to treat it like a brand-new project. That feels like a missed opportunity to me. If we’re just changing the line out, we don’t need to start from square one when it comes to new permits. Just have permits and approvals that are needed if there is a major change. If you’re just changing the line, I think we need expedited permitting.

 

Back to the ag sector, do you have support of both the Farm Bureau and the Farmer’s Union?

I mean, they were very happy with where we ended with the bill language last year. I talked with them extensively during the last session, and I reached out to them again with the fresh draft. I haven’t had any pushback at this point.

 

Final question: Given the fact that you have had feet both in the very rural West and the very urban West, what perspectives might you have on this rural-urban divide?

I feel like my background growing up in a small town has been super helpful for me in my work at the legislature and in my work generally because I don’t see it as a divide. I guess I see it as similar to the conversation we’ve just been having about some of these opportunities for ag producers in this energy transition and in the need to decarbonize. I mean, really working hard to create win-win things that work great for urban customers who want to see decarbonization and solutions that work really well for rural producers. And, try to make sure there’s not a divide.

I know that’s a subject that comes up all the time at the (Colorado) Capitol, but I try really hard not to see it in that frame because we are one state, and we have to make sure that we’re not doing anything to create that divide because we can’t be successful if that is the case.

I take that part of my job very seriously, being someone who’s in elected office and trying to work hard in the public’s best interest. That divide is the last thing we want. And I think my background in both growing up in a rural setting but also living now in Denver really helps me do a better job of that. Thank you.

 

Big Pivots conducted a similar interview with Ean Tafoya, a Denver mayoral candidate with a strong interest in climate and energy. The same offer is good of other Denver mayoral candidates who want to talk about what, if they are elected, they aim to do in the realm of energy and climate.

Allen Best
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