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Insights: Jared Polis' wonky answer on cost of renewables begins to roar

March 10, 2018 Updated: March 10, 2018 at 2:28 pm
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Joey Bunch Wednesday, October 5, 2016. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

He has to dumb it down. Jared Polis promises if he's elected governor Colorado will get all its power from renewable sources by 2040, a future my affection for fried food suggests I will not see.

Voters have the same problem, chicken wings aside. This wind-and-solar future is lost in a smog of vague words - a wonky explanation for an electorate trained on catchphrases and memes. A billionaire who speaks on a fourth-grade level now lives in the White House. Simple talk pays political dividends these days.

If Polis' energy plan has a catchphrase, it's "You might want to sit down; this could take a while."

Here's why I'm on this. Polis continues to take roundhouse kicks from the right over his roundabout answers on the price tag to end the state's addiction to oil and gas. All Republicans have to say to voters in response is, "It's gonna cost ya." Not hard to get your head around that.

Other Democrats are promising much the same, and they should wish they had Polis' problem. He is the presumed front-runner, at least Republicans think so, and renewable energy by 2040 is the load-bearing pillar of his platform.

If Polis won't talk cost, sowers of doubt certainly will. Notably the conservative Independence Institute in Denver crunched the numbers and came up with $45 billion.

The well-regarded Todd Shepherd wrote a piece for the conservative Washington Free Beacon on Feb. 23 claiming Polis was "sidestepping" the price tag, and he cited media interviews, including one with me. You probably know Todd, if you know Colorado politics. He was a radio reporter at 850 KOA, then the investigative reporter for the Independence Institute's Complete Colorado, before he took his talents to D.C.

After Shepherd's piece, the Republican Governors Association blasted it to reporters across the state.

"Polis thinks he can get elected by making pie-in-the-sky promises to his base without taking accountability for the consequences," the RGA told the press. "But Colorado voters are catching on to his act. Polis owes them a real answer."

He gave me a real answer. It just wasn't real short.

It was a couple of weeks before Christmas when I met Polis for coffee.

He shot down the Independence Institute's report. Not his circus, not his clowns, he suggested to me, as I nibbled on a flaky, delicious pastry like a squirrel in November.

"It was about a policy I don't have," Polis said. His plan doesn't force major electricity providers to attain his goals any way they have to, regardless of the price, as the Independence Institute suggested he would.

This was getting good, I thought. I put down my pastry.

"The way we plan to get our state to 100 percent renewable by 2040 ... is a bottom-up approach using market mechanisms, like encouraging distributed wind and solar projects, removing regulatory barriers to siting wind projects on state lands and lots of other things I could go into in detail," Polis said, as I picked up my pastry again.

Broadly and cheaply, Gov. Polis would:

- Appoint Public Utilities Commission members committed to renewable energy.

- Encourage rooftop solar by making sure homeowners and schools are paid full retail rates for their extra energy.

- Develop a more dynamic 21st century electrical grid to better handle load balancing.

- Allow people to put a tax on their home to pay for solar equipment, a financing Polis tried as a congressman from Boulder.

How much will that cost? Eh, hard to say, but a whole lot less than $45 billion, he can tell you that.

Polis has a good reason for being indirect: His promise is built on ifs and maybes that are hard to put a price on.

His 22-year window for his eight years as governor along with his ground-up philosophy constitute what I call the Tao of Jared, the peaceful ever-flowing waters of change that eventually carve the Grand Canyon.

By depending on the ground level - supportive utilities, bought-in customers and local governments that could fuss about wind and solar farms - a lot could go wrong to undermine the Tao of Jared.

It's not an unrealistic promise, but it's a complicated one.

And there's a lot more riding on this than whether Polis wins. If his renewable energy platform is a bust in Colorado, of all places, who else will make a sales pitch of this magnitude elsewhere? The Sierra Club will continue to sign up towns and counties to take similar pledges, but will another candidate for governor?

I went to my old standby for explaining sciencey stuff for the sake of messaging, Conservation Colorado, the state's largest environmental organization, which throws and bats from the left. Here's the skinny.

"Investing in renewable energy sources just makes smart financial sense," said Amelia Myers, the organization's energy advocate. "Wind and sunshine are free once energy generating systems are in place, and we're growing those every day. Clean energy means more jobs - there are already more than 62,000 in Colorado to be exact - and more good-paying, reliable jobs means more money for the state to pay for what it needs.

"Renewable energy means less air pollution, which causes cancer, heart attacks, asthma and other conditions that drive up health care costs for all of us. Instead of continuing to rely on a finite resource that's hard to extract like coal, we should continue our transition to a clean energy economy."

That helps. Polis could help his cause by thinking more of a bumper sticker and less about a term paper.

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