Legislative Preview: A Conversation about Colorado Energy Policy with State Sen. Chris Hansen

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“I mean, this is why I decided to leave my private-sector job and run for office, to work on climate change.”

Sen. Chris Hansen

The Colorado Legislature convened for three days in January to swear in new members and meet constitutional obligations, but due to COVID-19, the main work of the session will not begin until mid-February. 

Responding to climate change is a priority. Gov. Jared Polis has released a road map with a goal of achieving 100% renewable energy by 2040. We talked to Democratic Sen. Chris Hansen, Senate District 31, about the work we can expect from this year’s session.

Colorado Sen. Chris Hansen

Hansen is known as a legislator that understands and can shape Colorado energy policy, backing it with his professional accomplishments and impressive educational chops: He has a BSc in nuclear engineering from Kansas State University; a graduate diploma of civil engineering from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa; a master of science degree in technology policy from MIT; and a doctorate in economic geography from Oxford University.  

He was chosen as one of 15 leaders nationwide to join the NewDEAL (Developing Exceptional American Leaders), a national network of rising state and local elected officials.

Hansen’s expertise also comes from working in the environmental/energy sector, including with renewable energy and electricity companies for more than 20 years. Hansen was a senior director at IHS Markit, leading a worldwide portfolio of energy products, events and partnership.

Hansen was a Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, working to bring more renewable power to poor, rural areas of India.

He also teaches in these fields at the University of Colorado.

Hansen also serves as co-founder and director of programming at the Colorado Energy & Water Institute, which presents the Western Energy & Water Forum. He’s also co-founder of the Colorado Science and Engineering Policy Fellowship.

Q: What priorities do you expect the Legislature to have regarding energy policy during the upcoming session?

CH: I think there’s going to be a focus on implementation of the road map and creating clear direction and targets for sector-by-sector emissions reductions. I think we have a pretty good pathway in the electricity sector, with (a) statutory requirement that the electricity producers cut by 80% their emissions by 2030.

I think you’ll see several pieces of legislation that will work to implement that, as well as, of course, what’s happening at the PUC. One of the things I’m very focused on is improving our transmission grid, and more regional integration of that grid to make it cheaper and easier to integrate renewable energy into the system.

I think you’ll also see continued work on a transportation electrification, reducing emissions from the built environment. I’ve got a bill that will focus on reducing emissions from building materials, which is about 10%, actually, of emissions in the state. I’ve got another bill that’s going to be focused on capturing and mitigating methane emissions in the state, from things like abandoned coal mines, the agriculture sector, etc. So that’s what I’m expecting this year, just really building off of the broad frameworks that we put into place in 2019.

Q: Talk about the push for beneficial electrification so that we get away from natural gas to power buildings and vehicles with renewables.

CH: The idea of beneficial electrification is that there are two words involved. Word No. 1 is beneficial, meaning it needs to be in the best interest of the customer, their economics, the environmental footprint of a certain activity. And you electrify, so you’re basically trying to replace something that is costly with emissions with something that’s cheaper with low emission, using electricity.

“One of the things I’m very focused on is improving our transmission grid”

Sen. chris hansen

So transferring over from furnaces, natural gas furnaces to electric heat pumps, transferring over to induction cooking in your house are examples of a very long list of electrification options. I think you will see some legislation brought forward on that this year. Some of my colleagues have been working on that and I would expect that to be filed in February.

Q: Your Senate Bill 150, which requires utilities to use 15% renewable natural gas by the end of the decade to lower greenhouse gas emissions, didn’t pass in 2020. Why do you think that was and what will you introduce in 2021?

CH: SB 150 did pass out of the Senate, but then after we had the COVID emergency we basically stopped all of the bills that didn’t need, you know, immediate action because of COVID. So I’ll be bringing back a similar bill this session. It’s a bill that had a target of 15% by 2035 in that version that you just referred to, and I’ll be bringing a similar package forward next month.

Q: How will you pay for the infrastructure required for decarbonization and will you pass charges on to ratepayers and incentivize utilities?

CH: I think there’s going to be a shared burden here. I think for the most part, the idea that the polluter should pay is going to be front of mind as we develop different policies. I think having there be a clear price for pollution is going to be very important part of our progress in the state, and I think using ratepayer resources to lower system cost is also an important principle.

“ …  the current gas tax has been static for almost 30 years, unadjusted for inflation and it’s now not coming even close to meeting the needs of our infrastructure maintenance and repair.”

Sen. Chris Hansen

So for instance, when you shut down a coal plant in Colorado, you’re actually saving the ratepayers a  significant amount of money because the alternative of wind and solar plants, for example, are much cheaper than continuing to run the coal plant. And I think we’re gonna see lots of examples of that type of opportunity over the coming decade.

Q: What’s the status on implementing a new gas fee to raise money for transportation?

CH: Well, the status of that is that it is one of several concepts that’s being explored right now for legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes in February. What we know is that the current gas tax has been static for almost 30 years, unadjusted for inflation and it’s now not coming even close to meeting the needs of our infrastructure maintenance and repair, and so we need to create dedicated revenue to pay for our roads and our transportation system.

Q: How much pressure is climate change putting on legislators to move forward quickly on electrification of buildings and electric vehicles? Are Colorado’s elected officials going to meet the moment?

CH: Emphatically the answer is yes. I mean, this is why I decided to leave my private-sector job and run for office, to work on climate change. It is what motivated me to get directly involved in elected office and it is urgent that we meet this climate crisis head on.

We’ve just experienced the hottest year in the record books for global temperatures and there’s a huge amount of inertia in the climate system. And so we need to tackle this with speed, with urgency, and I think we can meet this moment, and I think you’re going to see some very assertive policymaking and legislating this year, to answer that question.

Q: How will addressing COVID and the economic recovery effect progress on energy legislation?

CH: I think it will accelerate it because one of the great aspects of green energy and clean technology is that it creates a lot of jobs. We’ve got an opportunity as we stimulate the economy, as we make investments for the future, to not only reduce emissions, but also create a bunch of great new jobs for Colorado. So, I think that’s the kind of win-win that we’ve set up. I think you’re going to see a number of proposals in Colorado and at the national level that try to capture that fact. And I think we’re going to continue to see green energy jobs expand rapidly in the state as a result.

(A previous version of this story misspelled Hansen’s last name. )

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