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A question of goals 

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We humans often attach ourselves to certain questions, seeking a simple answer, a singular solution. We really like to be right. We design puzzles, games and debates that lead us down paths with finite, determined ends. When we think we have solved the puzzle, we abandon the questions, the learning curve drops off, and we grow rigid in our understanding.

Though the environment may be shifting beneath our noses, we are unable to adapt because we're so attached to past solutions, and we're accustomed to the simplified linear process that led to them. We're stuck in the same conversation. We cease to evolve. To grow and adapt, we have to keep asking questions.

Today, I've got some questions about our public utility, created by citizens, for citizens, in 1924.

Recently, Colorado Springs Utilities has been vetting a "draft proposed energy vision." It includes a goal for renewable energy to comprise 20 percent of our electricity portfolio. In a recent CSU survey, 80 percent of residential customers and 85 percent of business customers either favored this goal or thought it was actually too low. Half of all customers were willing to pay 2 percent more for renewable electricity.

Several local institutions have significantly more ambitious goals. The Air Force Academy plans to be a net-zero electricity installation, with 100 percent renewable electricity generated on-site, by 2015. Fort Carson is aiming for 100 percent sustainable energy by 2027. Colorado College is committed to creating a carbon-neutral campus by 2020. UCCS, aligning with the state's climate plan, is targeting an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Utilities refers to these efforts as attempts to "go green" or focus on "environmental stewardship," but the intent is much more complex.

Beyond going green, our major institutions are seeking long-term energy free from the fossil-fuel market's price volatility. Subsidies have been built into our coal-based power system. We don't fully account for the cost of land degradation, human illness, or air and water pollution. New regulations will force power providers to factor those externalities into costs.

Coal is a limited resource. Global demand drove coal prices up in 2010, and the trend is expected to continue. Promoting energy efficiency and transitioning to renewable fuel sources can guard us from risk.

Renewable energy goals support innovation in the alternative energy industry. The recent Operation 60ThirtyFive market assessment identified renewable energy as one of five major opportunities for Colorado Springs. How can we take advantage of the opportunity to create local industry and jobs, particularly jobs of interest for the next generation?

For over a decade, Utilities has been running a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) program that allows customers to pay for renewable energy as an add-on to their regular bill. Unfortunately, the RECs that are bought and sold are derived from renewable energy projects nationwide. Why not create programs that allow customers to invest locally?

The big question: How can we mitigate human effects on climate systems? The efforts of our local institutions address the responsibility we all share to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. To bolster such efforts, we can adopt the proposed 20 percent renewable standard to attract and foster innovation. Utilities can make information related to our local energy plan more readily available, spurring research and development in local universities and encouraging entrepreneurship. As we move to alternative sources, we can invest in infrastructure for distributed power generation rather than additional coal plants.

What does the infrastructure look like? It's a smarter grid that permits monitoring and routing for multiple small-scale energy generation sites and incorporates dispatchable local energy storage capacity. With a smart grid, Utilities could manage distributed power transactions in a real-time market. Individuals, neighborhoods, businesses and institutions could work together to design, finance and install renewable power systems.

We could make the Pikes Peak region a model for resilient, decentralized, economically vibrant energy systems.

Emily Wright graduated as an environmental science major from Colorado College in 2004. She now serves as the college's sustainability coordinator.

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