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Vast potential for a clean energy future shown by western states

In honor of Energy Efficiency Day today, Friday, Oct. 5, we reflect on the ways Wisconsin, the home of our headquarters, can learn from our more progressive western neighbors. Many states out west are decades ahead of Wisconsin in terms of energy efficiency and moving toward 100% clean electricity. Two of our experts had the opportunity to live and work in California and Colorado previously. Andy Lick, research analyst, resided in California for several years, and Brett Bridgeland, project manager, lived in Colorado. These two thought leaders give you a look into the potential available to states that prioritize a clean energy future.

What did you observe while living in California and Colorado that put these states ahead of Wisconsin in terms of energy efficiency?

Andy Lick (AL): In 2015 when I was an intern at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), we had a visit with one of the commissioners, Carla Peterman. In that discussion she mentioned that it is not necessary for a clear path to be known at the time a policy is made. The commissioners have faith in the ability of the private and public sectors to innovate toward solutions to energy related problems and in doing so create a market signal for innovators. Behind CPUC decisions are legislated mandates to innovate for environmental reasons. Recently Californians again proved they are willing to pay for environmental action in the energy sector by enacting senate bill 100, which puts the world’s 5th largest economy on a path to 100% clean electricity by 2045.

Brett Bridgeland (BB): California’s Title 24 is probably the most stringent building code in the country and recently even expanded to start requiring on-site renewables in new homes. Combined with the mild climate and ample solar resource, California will likely be the first state to see mass-scale adoption of net zero building. Colorado, like California, has ample solar resources (sun and clear skies!) and political pockets that strongly favor tackling 21st century energy challenges. Boulder, for instance, is another leader in building energy efficiency, including being one of the first cities to set energy performance requirements for buildings. Boulder is also engaged in a process to establish a municipal utility that can drive the city’s aggressive decarbonization goals. Denver established one of the first Property Assessed Clean Energy programs in the country. Colorado was one of the first states to enable community solar developments, and the state is exploring policies to accelerate the retirement of coal plants. Colorado also has a couple of large-scale, mixed-use developments that will be leaders in integrated efficiency and clean energy planning at a district scale.

Was the culture of the city you resided in more aware of the impact they had on the environment? If so, what sorts of things did you observe to support that?

AL: I worked for a for-profit company whose president wanted every single employee to have the ability to ride their bikes to work and if they could not, he considered moving the company headquarters to make that possible. All the work trucks were run on biodiesel that became commercially available but for many years was “homebrewed” in the warehouse simply because employees and management wanted to be as free of fossil fuels as possible. The office was and still is stocked with all used office furniture so as not to create unnecessary demand for continued resource extraction. All the businesses building energy was supplied from solar hot water (space heating) and solar PV (electricity). Every decision was inflected with considering the impact it would have on current future generations. This experience demonstrated the possibility of environmental awareness working in a competitive setting.

BB: Both California and Colorado have large contingents of population who are inclined toward environmental protections and environmental justice. Boulder is very inclined toward outdoor recreation and has a reputation for being one of the healthiest and most active cities in the country. The city has an abundance of bike lanes and a strong bike culture.

California’s metropolitan regions and Colorado’s Front Range are both seeing a boom in population and face similar challenges of: 1) traffic and sustainable transportation for commuters 2) growing challenge for water conservation amidst limited water supplies 3) wildfires amplified by climate change and 4) air quality issues created by population density and local conditions. All those challenges are high priorities in the public awareness, perhaps more so than other regions.

What do you think we can learn from more progressive states in terms of energy efficiency?

AL: Decisions separating prosperity and environment are many times false and can be remedied with creativity and ingenuity and maybe even a little entrepreneurship. It is possible to enhance environmental health and for people to become more prosperous through energy policy overall with energy efficiency being an important component. Energy efficiency is another example of where fiscal responsibility meets environmental responsibility. Having ambitious goals helps.

BB: In California in particular, I think the conversation revolves much more around environmental justice than in other locations. This means it is a concern shared by a larger share of the population, which unifies political support and results in real action. It’s not just a recreational endeavor for wealthy outdoorspeople. It’s about fundamental health and prosperity.

Utilities in both California and Colorado are paving the way around integrated, geographically-specific planning of energy resources, and efficiency and clean energy are supplanting incumbent technologies. We should challenge utilities everywhere to pursue that rigor. The imperative must come from the top of those organizations and from the Public Utility Commissions.

Lastly, I would say that some midwestern states could learn from the level of ambition in goals coming from other regions and institutions. There’s inherent value to ambitious goals— think 100% clean power, net zero energy buildings, decarbonized investment portfolios, etc.

What do you think would be the most impactful thing people can do today in their personal lives to increase energy savings?

AL: Limit trips in automobiles that can be easily accomplished with a bicycle. Transportation is now a larger source of greenhouse gas emissions than the electricity sector and even if one is using an electric vehicle powered with solar electricity there are health benefits to cycling. In the USA, comparing cities with the highest versus the lowest levels of active transport, obesity rates are 20% lower and diabetes rates are 23% less, and switching short car trips to bike trips would save 1300 lives annually for just one region of the USA. It is imperative to think not only of emissions but also of the human health benefits from lower emission activities. Innovative ways to use energy to do our work need not make our lives more sedentary.

BB: Vote! Even if you’re not 100% thrilled with the options, don’t leave the decision to other people.
Switch all the light bulbs in your house to LEDs. Eat less meat, especially red meat. Turn down your AC and thermostat when you’re not home. Turn the lights off when you leave the room. Next time you replace appliances, get the most efficient version. Check for utility rebates. Live near public transportation.