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City's cutbacks on streetlights might save trainloads of coal, but the renewable energy lobby could use truckloads of cash 

If a theme could thread together the following two topics, perhaps it would be "baby steps."

On one hand, we should acknowledge small progress, even that which is inadvertent, such as a local move that saves a few train cars of coal. On the other, to go from diminutive measures to significant national change, will require closing the influence gap between sustainable-energy advocates and fossil-fuel lobbyists.

Light in the dark

When word hit that Colorado Springs would shut off roughly a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save $1.245 million this year, many residents were apoplectic. But there is a bright side, pardon the pun, to this gloomy news.

The city estimates the streetlight disconnect will reduce power usage by approximately 8,000 megawatt hours annually. That's equivalent to the power typically used by 1,180 households in a year, or a little over half of 1 percent of Colorado Springs Utilities' customers, according to Utilities spokesman Dave Grossman.

In turn, shutting off the 8,000 or so streetlights for a year reduces the city's use of coal by about 4,700 tons, or 47 train cars full. It's a tiny amount of the 2 million tons of coal the city uses per year, but every little bit helps.

The carbon emissions not spewed into the air as a result of the streetlight program equate to the elimination of the exhaust from 1,400 vehicles over a year's time, Grossman says.

Here's another advantage: "If you compound those energy savings for several years, then we're looking at a reduced load in our power plants to create electricity," Eric Isaacson, Colorado Springs Utilities worker, writes on the agency's Web site.

"In turn, that could lead to delays in adding any new power sources required to meet community demands. All of that saves our customers money and reduces the carbon footprint of the community."

Grossman notes that while the city relies on coal for two-thirds of its electricity, 22 percent of electric output comes from natural gas, 8 percent from hydroelectric and the rest from purchased power, which can be a mix of fuel sources.

Carbon credits

Of course, most of us would rather see progress come via deliberate efforts in the legislative process than from budget-slashing side effects. But if political contributions measure congressional influence, the renewable energy industry is woefully behind fossil fuels — trailing so badly that it might never catch up.

Consider: The oil and gas and coal mining industries gave nearly $272 million from 1990 through early this year to candidates and political parties at the national level, compared to $5.4 million donated by alternative energy production and services, according to opensecrets.org, a database of federal campaign contributions. And fossil fuels contributed $39 million in presidential year 2008 alone, compared to alternative energy's $2 million.

Craig Cox, with the Interwest Energy Alliance in Denver, a major trade group for renewable entities, says the disparity in campaign contributions over time between renewables and fossil fuels reflects the fact that renewables hadn't become a major player yet. Last year, though, wind energy represented the second highest number of installations, narrowly behind natural gas.

"Renewable energy industries are growing rapidly, and I think you're seeing considerably increased activity by the national trade associations based in Washington," Cox says. "It's only in recent years these industries have become more politically involved on a widespread basis."

In fact, campaign contributions by the renewables industry skyrocketed by 107 percent between the presidential election years of 2000 and 2008, up from $957,000 in 2000.

Pam Kiely, program director at Environment Colorado, says the renewables community has been less willing to use the traditional pathway of campaign contributions to influence legislation, turning instead to grassroots support of voters and nonprofit environmental groups.

For example, environmental activists proposed and won voter approval of Amendment 37 in 2004 in Colorado, forcing utilities to provide more energy through alternative sources, notably wind and solar.

"That spearheaded a march toward more investment in renewable energy," Kiely says.

But she admits the renewable industry needs to secure more federal mandates in order to compete with cheaper fossil fuels. And because the industry is so young, it's difficult to amass large amounts of campaign money to compete with the deeply entrenched oil and gas industries.

"How do you have the money to contribute money before you've developed a market so you can grow and thrive?" she says. "We're making the case for the next wave for our energy future and doing that as the underdog. We've got to be smarter and have the power of the people behind us and make the case on the merit of the issue."

zubeck@csindy.com

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