Will Toor, head of the Colorado Energy Office, on climate change and the economic future of coal towns

The new energy chief will play a key role in implementing the governor's challenging renewable energy plan

Will Toor, the executive director for the Colorado Energy Office, at his office in Denver on Feb. 13, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

The Colorado Energy Office has become a key battlefield in the fight over the state’s energy future. In 2017, disagreement over whether the office should provide grants to renewables like wind and solar or to fossil fuels like oil and natural gas led to a stalemate. Lawmakers denied state funding for the office — and the roughly two dozen employees who work there — for the better part of a year. That impasse ended, when last session, lawmakers restored funding and wrote into law that the office would promote all forms of energy production.

That consensus is now on shaky ground with the election of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who is pushing an ambitious renewable energy plan that would largely wean the state off of fossil fuels.

To help implement this plan, Polis selected Will Toor, a 57-year-old energy wonk, as the new head the Colorado Energy Office. Toor, who says he has been hearing the alarm bells of climate change since the 1980s, powers his Boulder home with solar panels, uses public transit, and is matter-of-fact when talking about coal-fired power plant closures. He supported 2,500-foot oil and gas drilling setbacks, the most hard-fought measure on last November’s ballot. (Polis did not.) When asked if he has any anxiety about climate change, Toor replied, “how could you not?”

Toor and his staff of 26 full-time employees will have to navigate the ongoing tensions over Colorado’s energy future, a future the state’s politically powerful oil and gas interests have spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years to influence. The transition will be technically challenging, too: Currently, less than 20 percent of the state’s electricity comes from renewables, and there is no clear vision for how an electric grid as large as Colorado’s and one mostly powered by coal-fired generators can run entirely on renewables.

Toor grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to Boulder shortly before he earned a doctorate degree in physics from the University of Chicago. Since then, he has worn many different hats. He served as Boulder mayor and city councilor, as well as a Boulder County commissioner. He co-founded Better Boulder, a political organization that supports new urbanist candidates for office and advocates for urban density and affordable housing in a city where accomplishing either has been an ongoing battle. Over the last six years, he was the director of the transportation program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, or SWEEP, researching energy and transportation efficiency. He also served on the Air Quality Control Commission under former Gov. John Hickenlooper, visiting coal mines and coal-fired power plants on the West Slope.

This story is part of a series of ongoing conversations with key cabinet heads inside the new Polis administration. Find our interviews with Kate Greenberg, of the Department of Agriculture, here, and Dan Gibbs, of the Department of Natural Resources, here. Toor sat down with The Colorado Independent at his office near the state Capitol. We talked about how he commutes into Denver, the unknowns of the governor’s renewable energy agenda, and what he hears from coal miners who face grim job prospects in the age of climate change.

The following transcript of our conversation, which included follow-ups over the phone, was edited for clarity and length.

How did you end up living in Boulder?

A friend and I were hitchhiking back out to Stanford. And the car that we were in broke down at 28th and Colorado in Boulder in July of 1980. We knew one person in Boulder. We called her up and asked if we could stay. Thirty years later, I am still living there.

You bike to the Downtown Boulder Station and bus into Denver. Do you commute this way because of your carbon footprint?

There are multiple motivations. I think my whole family tries to minimize our energy use and carbon footprint. I would have to say I like to get some exercise. And being on my bike has multiple benefits. Commuting back and forth between Boulder and Denver, if I had to sit there in traffic, as opposed to getting work done on the bus, my life would be a lot worse. It’s a much more pleasant way to commute, and a much more low-impact way. At home, we remodeled to install solar electric and hot water. Our vehicle is a plug-in electric vehicle. We have a Prius Prime. We try to do local driving that’s all on electricity. Longer distance trips are 55 miles per gallon.

Do you think individual acts of conservation matter?  

I would say the most important thing we can do is to change our energy systems. I think that end-use efficiency matters a lot … whether it’s building codes or whether it’s investment from utilities in energy efficiency programs or whether it’s financing programs, to make sure that we are making our buildings as efficient as possible. … Personal things matter because you need to add up billions of people doing those personal things. But in order for them to really make a difference, we need to have the right system in place so that things happen on a large scale.

Sunset in Durango as fires burn to the west. (Photo by John Herrick)

When did you first learn about climate change? What was that like?

This first time I gave much thought to it was when I was in graduate school. I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago to study physics. It was the mid-‘80s. I took an atmospheric science class. … And then the first time I remember really thinking about the implications, I drove out to Colorado for a conference in 1989. I remember people saying at the time that we had a decade to get the policy right. It’s now three decades later and we’re still trying to get the policy right.

Do you deal with any climate change anxiety?

How could you not? As I think about climate change, it can be somewhat overwhelming — the scale of the transition we need to make. Given the pretty clear imperative that we need to do deep reductions quickly and we need to get to somewhere near net zero by 2050 … that’s really daunting.

Things that give me hope are that given the right incentives, people are really smart, and there is enormous room for technological innovation that will help us reduce emissions and react to climate change. Here in Colorado, after 2004, with Amendment 37, we created a 10 percent renewable standard by 2020. At the time, the utilities were bitterly fighting it, arguing that no one even knows if we can do this. ‘How expensive is it going to be?’ ‘Are we going to crash the grid?’ And then, here we are, 15 years later, and the largest utility’s basically up to around 30 percent. … Now you have this cost curve going down, down, down so that now it’s cheaper to build new wind and solar than it is to operate coal-fired power plants. That just opens up enormous possibilities. We’re seeing the same thing in transportation. Batteries are increasingly cheaper. All the sudden that means you can really foresee widespread electrification of transportation.

Would you say that technology will save us? What about people who say we’re doomed?

I don’t think it’s a very helpful way of thinking about things. I think there are plausible pathways that can get us to the change that we need.

Do you think Gov. Polis’ 100 percent renewable by 2040 plan is possible?

I do. I think we have a clear roadmap to an 80 percent clean electricity mix. The last 20 percent is harder. And I don’t know that we have the roadmap how we get all the way there. … Despite all the great changes that have happened, we still have a relatively coal-heavy mix. There is currently no way we can achieve the emissions reductions that are required without that transition from coal. How do we leverage that to encourage utilities to retire those legacy coal plants? And how do we do that in a way so that we are thoughtful about engaging those coal plants that really are a key part of certain communities?

The brilliance of setting the 100 percent target is that it sets a goal for the utilities and the markets to work toward. I think that will help to spur the innovation in technology and business models needed to meet the goal. … It does get more challenging and requires more innovation when you move toward the very high levels of renewable energy. With wind and solar, because they’re variable generating resources — the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing — as you get to higher and higher percentages, you have larger challenges with balancing the grid.

Have you visited a coal mine or coal-fired power plant here in Colorado?

Yes, I have been to a couple of coal mines and a couple of coal power plants. Back before it closed, I visited the Valmont Power Station [in Boulder]. And I spent a couple days touring a coal mine and power plants in Craig. … And then just last summer, spent some time down at the coal mines outside of Paonia.

What do you tell the workers there, given what you know about the effects of coal on the climate and what needs to happen to stop climate change?

I think it’s clear that there is a transition coming. The economics are going to be driving a transition away from coal. And I think that the imperatives of climate change are going to make that happen faster. But it’s going to happen either way. What I think is really important is to ensure that there is attention given to promoting economic development that will work for the people in those communities.

Have any miners or plant workers said anything that stuck with you?

Coal really has been an economic base. It brings good-paying jobs. It was clear that people were very concerned that they are making $80,000 to $90,000 per year and do not know what jobs will be there when this goes away.

The Colorado Energy Office has a legislative mandate to promote all-the-above energy. Are you promoting natural gas development?

I think that our job is to really help implement the governor’s agenda. We work for Gov. Polis. And the governor’s energy agenda is really about moving toward 100 percent renewables by 2040, supporting the transition to zero-emission vehicles, and acting on climate change. … There are a lot of opportunities to increase the efficiency of [oil and gas] operations in ways that will both save energy and reduce fugitive emissions. So I’m hopeful that we will be able to engage with the oil and gas industry in a productive way.

How is this an opportunity for the industry?  

I think we will be exploring ways to work with the industry that will increase their energy efficiency … and trying to do that in ways that would reduce the emissions of methane. If you’re not losing that methane, you’re able to capture it as an energy source.

Have you spoken to anyone in the oil and gas industry about this plan?

No, not yet. This is very early-stage thinking. 

Do you foresee continued drilling in Colorado under the new administration?

I can’t speak to that. The regulation of oil and gas drilling falls under the Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

A Crestone Peak oil and gas operation on County Line Road on the Weld County side. The site contains 16 wells, 40 oil tanks, 26 combustors, 17 separators. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group.)
A Crestone Peak oil and gas operation on County Line Road on the Weld County side. The site contains 16 wells, 40 oil tanks, 26 combustors, 17 separators. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group.)

Do you think there is any conflict between what the law says about the role of the Colorado Energy Office and the governor’s agenda?

I think that the statute is fairly broad. I think it gives a lot of room for the office to work on the governor’s agenda.

The Colorado Energy Office has at times been a political hot potato. How do you navigate the politics of this office, especially given the prospects that there may not be a Democratic trifecta in future years?

My job as director of the energy office is to follow the governor’s lead and help implement the governor’s agenda. I think the governor has been clear that his priorities are getting to 100 percent renewable, clean electricity generation and moving toward zero-emission vehicles. So I think those need to be the priorities of the office. … That said, we work in a wide variety of areas and much of what the office does is administering programs: agricultural energy efficiency and commercial energy efficiency and industrial energy efficiency and low-income weatherization and financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements. We will continue with all of those programs.

Let’s say there is a divided legislature in 2020. And Republicans will not fund this office if it pursues the governor’s agenda. How do you make sure that your office stays running and the two-dozen or so employees stay employed?

While there is clearly some history of partisan divides, not everything lines up along partisan lines. We’re seeing the cost of renewable energy getting so low. There are opportunities to meet the renewable energy goals while also lowering electricity rates and saving ratepayers significant amounts of money … I think we’re seeing a transition because the economics are shifting so much. I think the politics are shifting as well. I’m hopeful that an agenda that is focused on moving toward very high levels of renewable energy is something that will be able to attract bipartisan support. Given the economic realities that are out there, I think that it will.

Making sure that policies are really focused how we ensure a just transition for communities where their economic base is going to shift is also going to be really important so there can be broad support for the agenda moving forward. But I think for the vast majority of people, regardless of their party, the idea that we can have cleaner electricity that lowers rates, I think that is something that everyone can embrace. I think it transcends party lines.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Their future is bleak. At best.
    But, no one really cares as there are not enough voters in those places.
    Time for these Trump worshipers to relocate to growing urban areas.

  2. The coal industry employs fewer people than Hardees. Time to let them go the way of the wagon wheel makers.

    If coal was still economically viable, the invisible hand of the market would support it, no?

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