Colorado Energy Chief Will Toor on Achieving Ambitious New Climate Goals

CHASE WOODRUFF | JULY 19, 2019 | Westword

Will Toor brought no shortage of experience to his new role as head of the Colorado Energy Office when Governor Jared Polis tapped him to lead the agency earlier this year. A former mayor of Boulder, director of the University of Colorado Environmental Center and state air-quality commissioner under former governor John Hickenlooper, Toor had spent the previous six years developing transportation policy at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, a Boulder-based clean-energy nonprofit.

He’s drawing on that background to help shape Colorado energy policy as the state seeks to once again position itself as a leader in tackling climate change. Toor’s office worked closely with lawmakers on the slate of climate bills passed during this year’s legislative session, and now it will help Polis and other state agencies develop a more detailed blueprint on how to meet the state’s new climate goals.

House Bill 1261, dubbed the Colorado Climate Action Plan, commits the state to a 50 percent cut in overall emissions by 2030, and a 90 percent cut by 2050. Those targets are roughly in line with what the world’s top scientists say are necessary to keep global warming below catastrophic levels — but as a new state report released earlier in July made clear, Colorado is currently nowhere near on track to meet them.

Westword recently spoke with Toor about the state’s approach to climate policy, the progress made by the legislature this year and the work that lies ahead; the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Westword: There seems to have been a lot more awareness and urgency around climate change over the last six months to a year, starting with the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last October. As someone who’s been working on climate and energy policy for a long time, what do you make of that?

Will Toor: I think there’s a convergence of factors. I think that the IPCC report and the continuing climate extremes that we’re seeing have really galvanized public opinion. And I think that the technological and economic progress that we’ve seen on clean energy, the fact that renewables are substantially cheaper — that’s really opened up this world of possibility. Things that would have been a real struggle a few years ago are now common sense.

Your office will be leading the effort to develop a “blueprint” for achieving the state’s ambitious new emissions goals. What will that process look like?

It’s really going to be a multi-departmental effort. The Department of Public Health and Environment, [the Department of Transportation], the Energy Office and the Department of Natural Resources will all be very much engaged in this. It will look at the legislative pieces that are in place, the regulatory pieces, and things that are already happening in the private sector and at the local government level, to essentially quantify: How far is that going to get us toward those goals, and how big is the remaining gap?

So we can then have a conversation about, okay, here’s the gap, and here are a bunch of different potential pathways for closing that gap. We’d then have a public and stakeholder engagement process to look at different options, and come back with recommendations to the governor and the legislature about the additional things we need to do to get to the goals the state has adopted. Those could be additional regulatory elements, they could be additional legislation. I think both will be on the table.

What are some other next steps?

There are a number of things that we’ll be moving forward with in parallel. We’ll be starting a feasibility study on a Low Carbon Fuel Standard this fall, both looking at the technical and economic feasibility, and also beginning a stakeholder engagement process. Out of that, we’ll be making a recommendation to the governor whether to pursue LCFS for Colorado, either through the regulatory process or through legislation.

We’ll also be kicking off a beneficial electrification analysis. Just as electricity can replace gasoline and diesel in transportation, electricity can replace burning natural gas in buildings, for their HVAC systems. Buildings are the third largest source of emissions, behind electricity and transportation, and we think that building electrification is going to be a key strategy for reaching the significant emissions reductions that are required. We’ll be kicking off a study process that will try to quantify the building electrification potential in the state, and coming back with recommendations for legislation next spring.

It seems like public awareness of the climate impacts of transportation and buildings have lagged behind the electricity sector. Why do you think that is?

There’s been so much work done in the last twenty years on the electricity side, and I do think there’s a lot of public awareness of that. Wind and solar are very visible, and they are the tip of the spear: Electricity is the largest source of emissions, and the only way we will achieve deep emissions reductions in other sectors is by replacing fossil fuels in buildings, factories and vehicles with clean electricity.

But now we really do need to expand our focus beyond electricity to these other sectors. And I would agree, because they’re not as visible, because there hasn’t been as much work done over the decades in those arenas, that there’s not as much awareness of them.

I would say that when it comes to electric vehicles, awareness has been building, but there’s definitely more to be done there. There’s a bunch of analysis that’s been done that suggests that one of the biggest obstacles to EV adoption is just people not really knowing that they exist, and they’re available, and they can meet their needs.

There’s a clear path to very deep emissions cuts in the electricity sector — like Xcel Energy’s pledge to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2030 — but we haven’t seen similarly ambitious proposals yet in the transportation sector. Why is that, and what needs to change?

You’re starting with a more complicated sector than electricity. With electricity, you basically have a relatively small number of utilities that are producing the vast majority of electricity, and so the changes that are needed are changes that are happening with a few companies. With transportation, you’ve got millions of individuals and businesses that are buying vehicles. It’s also traditionally been more difficult for state and local governments to act because a lot of the transportation decisions are made at the federal level.

That said, I think there are enormously exciting things happening. In particular, electrification is just moving so rapidly; in many ways, it feels like where we are with electric vehicles today is where we were with wind and solar about ten years ago. Wind and solar used to be the expensive power, and it really required significant government policy or investment to move them forward. But that policy got wind and solar to a large enough scale that the industry started learning by doing, and squeezing costs out, and innovating — and we’re now in a situation where they are the cheapest sources of power that are out there.

We’ve seen the price of batteries, which is the primary driver of EV costs, come down 80 percent since 2010. I think we’re on the cusp of a transition, where when the battery prices come down by about another 50 percent, EVs all of a sudden start becoming the cheapest vehicles that are out there, in initial price. They’re already the cheapest vehicles in terms of life-cycle costs.

So one of the most important things we can do as a state is to continue with aggressive policy to support broader adoption of EVs. That’s going to be key to achieving clean transportation goals. We really do need to electrify essentially the whole light-duty vehicle fleet over the next twenty years.

How do you solve a problem like building emissions? People buy new cars a lot more frequently than they build new buildings. We’re going to have to do a lot of retrofitting. How does that happen?

I think there are two parts to that answer. One piece is making sure that as we build new buildings, we’re building them right. I think there’s more work to be done to make sure we’ve got the right codes in place.

But that leaves all the existing buildings, and there are a number of things we can do there. I’d love to see us move forward on the commercial-building side with benchmarking requirements. The City of Denver has a very successful commercial benchmarking requirement — I’d like to see us consider a statewide benchmarking requirement.

I think there’s going to be an important role for utilities when it comes to electrification of buildings. This is one of those arenas where the economic interest of utilities and the public interest are aligned. So utilities should be making investments to help their customers transition from natural gas appliances to electric appliances, just as they’ve been helping their customers increase their energy efficiency.

How do you view personal responsibility when it comes to climate change? Do individual choices matter?

I think both are important. I read the critiques that are out there; there are folks who argue that individual choices don’t matter, that it’s all about the systematic changes that need to be made. I don’t quite buy that. I think we need both. The system-wide changes will help lead to millions and millions of individual changes, and I also think in terms of building the momentum for the systemic changes that we need, that consumer behavior really matters. In transportation, in particular, the individual choices that people make help to drive the bigger infrastructure decisions that get made.

We’ve seen transformative, radical proposals like the Green New Deal proposed at the federal level recently. That’s not the way Colorado is tackling climate policy. What kind of approach do you think we’re taking, in terms of potentially being a model for other states and governments?

The way that I would describe it is that we’re focusing on where there are opportunities to do significant emissions reductions in ways that are going to save money for consumers, and work for the economy of the state. And I think that what that does is create more durability for these programs.

If you imagine some huge political shift in eight years in Colorado, we would never go backwards on electricity generation. We’ll be well on the way to electricity generation that will be saving consumers money. No one is going to be able to turn that around. As we move toward transportation electrification and get to a point where we have hundreds of thousands of people who are not having to buy gasoline — there’s going to be a constituency that will be demanding that we continue investment in charging infrastructure. I think there will be an economic momentum that will be irresistible as you go forward.

And I think that type of approach is an approach that can work in purple states, and in red states. The model that we’re working on here — which is a model that focuses on how we make clean energy cheap rather than dirty energy expensive — is the kind of model we need if we’re going to build the momentum to do this nationwide.Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.