Sasha Nelson: All about choice — energy choice
I did something crazy last weekend. I built a deck. Beyond the weirdness of completing a major outdoor living project in the middle of February, I was struck by the number of choices I had to make. Wood or composite? Two steps or three? Covered or uncovered? As I sit on my new deck mulling this week’s column, it occurs to me that my process for building a deck is a telling analogy for the energy choices we are faced with today.
Until the development of the coal industry in the mid 19th century, all energy was renewably generated by converting biomass, wind, water and human or animal labor into energy. Then coal and a variety of oils and gases ignited the Industrial Age. Our way of life became increasingly tied to the use of fossil fuels and our economies began to rise or fall in time with production.
Flash forward to May 2006 when Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, addressed the Clean Cities Congress with these words, “for decades we have been living lives of abundance, with little regard for our natural resources or global health. But we are now facing hard choices in our energy policy.” Why are we making choices now? And why are they hard?
My front steps were crumbling and my sidewalks needed to be replaced before someone was hurt on the uneven surfaces. I could have continued to get by, but the need for repair combined with the favorable weather provided the perfect circumstances to build something better. Similarly, on a global scale we are facing concerns of energy scarcity with more people to share fewer and fewer mineral resources. Meanwhile, 98 percent of scientists are saying that our current energy mix is reckless. The time has never been better to proactively make different energy choices.
But these choices are perceived as hard because many people think we would give something up like fossil fuel jobs or our quality of life. In fact, making smart energy choices means increasing our available energy and job opportunities. We didn’t give up newspapers when radio was invented and we haven’t given up radio in favor of television. Instead, we have more options; we use what makes the most sense or more than one at a time.
In 2004, Colorado voters supporting establishing a renewable energy standard to demonstrate a clear commitment to offering energy choices. We have since amended the renewable energy standard three times. As a result of Colorado’s investment in clean energy, the industry has flourished, creating tens of thousands of jobs. Most recently, we expanded Colorado’s renewable energy standard to rural communities, including here on the Western Slope.
Our state has benefited from increasing our energy choices. Colorado now boasts over 23,000 cleantech jobs with an average salary of over $78,000 per job. Increasing the renewable energy standard led direct employment in this sector to jump 28.2 percent, more than doubling the national increase in cleantech. The increases underscore the importance of the cleantech industry to Colorado’s economy, and the relationship between strong clean energy policy and a thriving cleantech industry.
My deck building choices were made with a thought for the future. What type of deck would be durable, low maintenance and attract buyers? We also must consider the future in making energy choices. Or as McCain put it, “future generations — my children and grandchildren, along with yours — will have to live with the decisions we make today. And so it is time for us to make some tough and — hopefully — smart choices regarding our energy use and production before it is too late.”
Coal is not going anywhere — for the foreseeable future it will be part of our energy choices. It’s also important to reinvigorate our use of renewable sources as they provide a consistent, low cost, and reliable supply of energy to power Colorado into the future. Ensuring it is in the mix shields us from future price spikes associated with the volatility of fossil fuels. In fact, utilities around the U.S. are turning to renewables like wind due to its low and predictable costs.
We’ve had energy options all along; however, those options were not always available locally for the average person. Colorado’s renewable energy standard is providing choices for everyone. Craig is now home to our region’s first community solar garden and this gives everyone who is a Yampa Valley Electric Association co-operative member as many, if not more, choices in energy than a person living in Denver.
Those old concrete stairs helped provide the motivation and support for my fabulous new deck. Similarly, when we combine renewable energy with wise fossil fuel use we don’t give anything up; instead, we get to create a better energy future.
Sasha Nelson is the field organizer for Conservation Colorado’s Craig office.
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