Quick Questions: Tom Plant

Tom Plant is the Director of the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office (GEO). He served in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1998 through 2006, including two years as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one year as Chairman of the Joint Budget Committee. He was named Legislator of the Year by the Sierra Club of Colorado and received the Colorado Conservation Voters’ “Green Sense Award for Environmental Leadership.” We caught up with Tom in mid-October to talk about his four years at GEO and the challenge of sustaining the advances made with ARRA money beyond next year.

Tom Plant

Q: One of the themes of the Governor’s Energy Office of Colorado is building the new energy economy. In practical terms, what does this mean in terms of job creation, energy efficiency, and the development of renewable energy?

The thing about the new energy economy is that it’s something that the governor [Bill Ritter] identified back in 2006 when he was running his campaign, and it was really fundamentally centered around [the questions of] what are our assets and what are our opportunities? Colorado has tremendous natural assets in the renewable energy field. The northern part of the [state is a] big solar area; the southern part of our state is very big for solar, particularly solar CSP [concentrated solar power] but really all over the state for solar PV. We’re on the westernmost side of the wind river that runs through the country, so the eastern part of our state is a great wind resource. And we’re also on the easternmost side of the geothermal potential, so one part of our state has great geothermal potential. So we looked at all these things and said these are great natural assets, and then we had the intellectual capital of NREL [National Renewable Energy Laboratory] and our research institutions that could help to drive forward the knowledge base in renewable energy and energy efficiency. And we said–looking at the market and looking at what’s happening within the clean tech space, the renewable energy space, energy efficiency–this is an incredible opportunity for us to really not only drive forward the energy and environmental security for the state, but also economic security. We can really begin to play a leading role in attraction of business, establishment of business, and economic development here in Colorado if we get on the front end of this. And so, when the governor came in, one of the first things he did was to appoint me to the Energy Office, and he changed the mission of the Energy Office, which at the time was just doing the federal weatherization program. And he said, what we want to do is move forward our competitive position within a new energy economy.

And so that’s what we have done from a policy standpoint in terms of taking away any barriers to renewable energy being able to be integrated at the utility level and for homeowners and for businesses–trying to take away any barriers that we saw. We’ve had fifty-seven different pieces of legislation in order to do that. We worked very closely at the Public Utilities Commission to ensure that the policies that are being adopted around our utilities are structured in such a way that they are going to advance opportunities for residents and businesses to be able to invest. Then we’ve taken that policy basis and those intellectual assets that we have at NREL and the other institutions and we’ve actively gone out and spoken directly to companies to make sure that they knew what we were doing, made sure that they knew what our commitment was, and then actively tried to attract them to make investments in Colorado.

And that end piece is really–you know, when you talk about new energy economy, one part of it is new energy, the other part is economy, and that’s the economy part–really trying to drive job creation and business development and investment in the state.

Q: You mentioned, in terms of new job creation, that Colorado has the advantage of having NREL. Can you speak a bit more about what else the state is doing to drive more of the clean energy economy into Colorado?

Part of it is just actively engaging with NREL. And what I’ve told people is, look, Colorado doesn’t have any more sun than it had 20 years ago, it doesn’t have any more wind than it had 20 years ago, and you know, frankly, NREL’s been in Colorado since 1977. I mean this isn’t anything new, right? But what it took was executive leadership to identify all these assets and how they can work together and then really use those, engage. One of the first meetings the governor had was out at NREL with the board of directors and Executive Director Dan Arvizu. And when we went out there, they said to us, This is the first time a governor’s been at NREL in eight years. And this was in the first month of the governor being in office. I think it might have been in the first week or two. And the partnership that we’ve created with NREL has continued. We work very, very closely with them. Their mission is federal, and we understand that, but we feel like we can benefit from their location here and the asset that provides for companies that invest. So when we talked to Siemens, for example, [which] established their R&D headquarters here, one of the things that they really liked about investing here in Colorado was they knew that they were going to have the resources of NREL right down the street. That they could test their products. They knew that there was going to be a scientific basis population that they could draw from. And that’s something that they can read about on paper, and you can sort of passively sit around and wait for them to figure that out, or you can go out and really push it. The governor’s approach has been to really go out and push it.

Q: As the stimulus dollars are coming to a close, what are your plans for this last year of stimulus funding, and how, if in any way, are you using this last year of funding to create programs that are sustainable beyond the funding period?

It’s a great question. This has been a part of our plan from the very beginning. What we centered our overall plan around that we submitted to the DOE was addressing three primary barriers that people have to investment and efficiency and renewables. The first was access to information, just being able to know what is available to them and who can provide it. Look at just an efficiency rebate. There are utility rebates that vary–we have sixty-five different utilities, if you count the gas utilities as well, across the state, and some of them have rebates, some of them don’t; some of them have rebates for certain products, some of them have rebates for different products. There’s no one rebate policy among all the utilities; they’re all different. And so there’s that information and there are local government incentives, state incentives, federal incentives. And there was no place that somebody could go and say, My water heater went out, what can I get? And what incentives are available to me based on where I live? So we created Recharge Colorado, which is . . . I don’t know if you’ve been on rechargecolorado.com?

Q: I have.

That’s a place where people can go and they can plug in where they live, who their utility is, and it’ll bring up every incentive that‘s available to them. Either they can ask about specifics or they can get all of them. And it’ll say this is your federal, this is your state, this is your local, this is your utility, these are the things that are available to you and these are some of the decisions that will help you as you create an energy plan. So that access to information was a big part of our investment. And that’s going to continue. The big investment there was that infrastructure of providing that resource. And that’s going to continue beyond the ARRA period. The second thing we did was–well, the three legs of the stool [are] access to information, access to services, and access to capital. On the capital side, we’ve developed a partnership with the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority where we have developed revolving loan programs that they’re administering, and they’re contracting through local lending authorities to be able to provide to businesses low-interest money to be able to invest in energy efficiency upgrades. We also have a direct investment program there that’s a revolving loan program again, to go to businesses that want to make a major investment in the state in order to establish themselves here. So that’s going to continue to go forward, and it’s being run through the Colorado Housing and Finance [Authority], so it’s in a completely separate entity that we’re partnering with. So that’ll continue beyond the ARRA period.

And then the last one was access to services, and that’s where we’re really trying to build up local infrastructure. One of the things that we’ve funded through the Recovery Act are about eighteen clean energy coordinators [who] are in communities all over the state so that we can try and build up that local capacity. In places where there was no capacity existing that could drive programs and drive local governments to make investments in certain areas, or drive programs to be able to develop, or drive industries to be able to develop, and people who wanted to get into the efficiency industry, for example, being able to develop that expertise and training and all that sort of stuff, there wasn’t any infrastructure. There was nothing to drive that forward. We could have come in and set up a program and said, Okay, here you go, but until there’s that local capacity to drive it forward, it won’t sustain itself. So what we invested in were local capacity development, and that’s going to be funded through the period of the Recovery Act, but then it will be picked up locally, and so it will continue beyond the period of the Recovery Act, and hopefully between these various things that we’ve established, at the end of the Recovery Act period we’ll have local infrastructure that is driving programs, we’ll have our web-based resource for people to be able to find out what is available to them, we’ll be tying them to local contractors that can do the work and will have incentives that are based on these revolving loans and things, that are being operated through the bank, through the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority that will continue to make money available to people. So even after the RA is done, what we’ve set in place is a structure that will continue on pushing the new energy economy beyond that funding period.

Q: Since Colorado’s been one of the leaders in energy finance mechanisms, especially when it comes to energy efficiency, one of the big dilemmas is that you may have a loan loss reserve, but to securitize the loans you need a large quantity of them. Has the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office and have you looked at the combination of finance tools and the issue of driving consumer demand to generate enough loans to make it worthwhile?

When you talk about going to a secondary market, we need that really high volume. Frankly, I don’t know that Colorado alone is going to be able to generate that kind of volume. So what we’re interested in doing is partnering up with other states that have loan losses or programs and efficiency programs and trying to bundle. California has some, Pennsylvania has a really good one. They’re all looking at the secondary market, and there might be an opportunity for us to work together to pool these loans and get them into a secondary market that would free up additional capital in each of our respective states to be able to drive back in.

Q: My last question has to do with the challenge of bringing low-income families into the new energy economy. Could you talk about the relationship between the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and weatherization, and how the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office is fitting in the low-income population.

We’re fortunate purely by accident here in Colorado that the weatherization program and all of these other programs–the [State Energy] Programs and other efficiency programs and renewable programs that we operate–are all operating out of our one office. So it’s a little easier for us to integrate the mission of both because we’re running both. In other states it’s a little more difficult because weatherization might be run out of Human Services and the energy office is run out of Natural Resources. There are lots of different structures. We’re just fortunate that they’re both running out of the same place. And one of the things that we started doing early on was we have our staff working on their various programs but they also work in teams, and we try and have cross-pollination between the different divisions to be able to benefit from the experience that we have across our staff. [For example,] weatherization might be working with our rebate program. When we were developing our call center and the Recharge Colorado website, the director of our weatherization program was actively involved in that as well. The people who are doing the outreach in the weatherization community are involved in overall communications department within the office. So we try and get a lot of cross-pollination and get people involved in all aspects of what the office is doing. By doing that, we’ve been able to really maximize the opportunities for synergies between our different programs. That being said, there are structural barriers within the [Department of Energy] program that limit the extent to which that can be done. We’re trying to reduce those barriers as much as possible. Some of them are statutory at the federal level. And it’s going to take some time for the weatherization program to truly modernize, because it’s been structured on a model that was developed back in the late seventies.