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Colo. energy chief seeks to lead transition to clean energy

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Colo. energy chief seeks to lead transition to clean energy

New Gov. Jared Polis' ambitious goal is to achieve 100% clean electric generation by 2040, with a shorter-term goal of 80% clean energy by 2030

The Colorado Energy Office is seeking to partner with utilities in implementing Polis' policies, not to regulate them

Office will weigh in on issues before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and the Air Quality Control Commission of Colorado

As the new director of the Colorado Energy Office, Will Toor is charged with helping implement what some are calling the most ambitious clean energy agenda in the nation. New Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has announced his vision to transition Colorado to 100% renewable energy for power delivery by 2040, and to dramatically expand the electrification of transportation in the state.

The Colorado Energy Office has been at the center of political battles over the state's energy generation mix, with Republicans moving to de-fund the agency. But with Democratic majorities in Colorado's legislature, Toor's office will have more support in executing the governor's energy plans. While much of the office's mission concerns overseeing grants to fund projects such as weatherization assistance programs for low-income residents and energy financing, Toor arrives with bigger-picture ideas on how to execute his boss's sweeping energy objectives.

After life in the public sector in Boulder--he's a former mayor, city councilor and county commissioner--Toor moved into the role of transportation program director for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. Now back in the public sector, Toor spoke with S&P Global Market Intelligence in a Feb. 5 interview about his approach to helping utilities move toward clean energy generation.

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Colorado Energy Office Executive Director Will Toor is seeking ways to implement policies to achieve 100% clean electricity generation by 2040.

Source: Colorado Energy Office

S&P Global Market Intelligence: What do you see as the role of the Colorado Energy Office, specifically as it relates to the utilities in the state? Do you see the office as a regulatory agency charged with overseeing utilities, or more of a partner charged with supporting them?

Will Toor: The Energy Office is not a regulatory agency. The energy office both administers a number of programs but more importantly it is the governor's voice in the energy policy world … So I see our role as being a policy role. We will certainly weigh in on the Public Utilities Commission and on the Air Quality Control Commission and we will be working with utilities to help craft policy solutions that will support utilities' move toward high levels of renewable energy and low levels of carbon emissions.

The office in recent years has been dragged into political fights in the legislature about its role, with Republicans threatening to de-fund it over concerns that it has prioritized clean energy sources over Colorado's fossil-fuel industry. What do you see as the office's role in supporting clean energy sources, and does that role in any way threaten legacy resources? Are fossil fuels facing extinction in Colorado?

I think that it is our job to help implement the governor's policy direction on energy. So the governor has set the goal of 100% clean electric generation by 2040 and has recently issued an executive order on electric vehicles. We will be working toward 100% clean energy mix, toward clean energy generation. And on the transportation side, we are working toward much deeper transition toward electricity ... We will certainly be open to working with any industry in the state.

The office recently filed a motion supporting the Delta-Montrose Electric Association's bid to buy its way out of its contract with the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc. Can you explain why the office is intervening in that case? Is it taking sides here?

I think from our perspective there are an important set of issues that are raised in the Delta-Montrose case, and we think it's important that our rural electric utilities have the ability to access renewable energy and electricity generation and we look forward with working with Delta Montrose ... I don't know that I want to speak in great depth about that because we'll be doing filings on that; right now we're in the procedural portion of this case and we certainly are arguing that the Public Utilities Commission does have jurisdiction over Delta-Montrose's complaint.

Xcel Energy Inc., one of the state's largest utilities, just announced its goal to transition to carbon-free fuels by 2050. But Gov. Polis wants a faster transition away from carbon fuels, setting a goal to do just that by 2040. Do you anticipate the office using carrots or sticks to urge utilities such as Xcel to make transitions to carbon-free fuel under Polis' timeline? What kind of tools does the office have to fast-track that transition?

To some extent I'm going to have to talk generally because we're still in the early stages of sort of evaluating what are the appropriate strategies of supporting utilities in the transition ... Ultimately many of the decisions are made by the Public Utilities Commission and we'll certainly be looking at strategies working with utilities and the PUC to support that transition. I would describe Xcel as I think a very willing partner in the transition toward clean energy. I think that our vision is very much to work with utilities to dramatically clean up and de-carbonize the generation mix and work with electrifying as many sectors as possible ... My sense is that Xcel Energy really sees that future in which they've moved toward that 100% clean energy mix.

Is a transition to phase out fossil fuel generation by 2040 possible? What technologies do utilities need to make such a transition?

At the moment I would say that our focus is probably largely a shorter-term focus; it's pretty clear that we know how to get to an 80% clean energy mix in a way that is very affordable. Xcel's goal of an 80% carbon-reduction by 2030 is a very appropriate goal and I would view the longer term goals as more aspirational goals. In setting those goals we're helping drive the market changes in getting there.

As the former mayor of Boulder, what do you have to say about the ongoing negotiations between the city and Xcel over municipalization? There's also talk about Pueblo breaking away from Black Hills Energy following a feasibility study giving a green-light for that city to transition toward municipalization. Will the Colorado Energy Office have any role in supporting such attempts to break away from investor-owned utilities?

I think that our focus is on the goal of clean energy and not so much on particular models ... I want to be careful of what I say here; in my prior life as Boulder mayor and county commissioner and citizen, I've taken a position on municipalization. I do not expect the Colorado Energy Office weighing in on that transition.

More broadly, what do you see as the role of investor-owned utilities in the state amid attempts on the local level to municipalize electric service and new goals on a statewide level to fast-track transitions to carbon-free energy?

What I would say is clearly the biggest single player in our utility sector is Xcel Energy and I think Xcel is a willing partner in moving toward clean energy and the transition toward transportation electrification. There are some other folks out there who are focused on changing utility business models ... I think our focus will be on how do we focus on clean energy rather than how do we change the utility business model.