Forum Addresses Colorado's New Energy Economy

The Sustainable Industries Economic Forum concluded its six-city series on March 25 with a morning of public and private sector thought leadership in Denver, Colorado.

Paul Hawken’s keynote address anchored the subsequent panel and presentations by Denver Mayor Hickenlooper and Governor Ritter about building a sustainable energy economy in Colorado and around the world. Hawken addressed a number of issues directly related to how decisions today, such as supply chain choices, will determine what kind of civilization we’ll have going forward.

Hawken is a world-renowned author and environmentalist who has made it his life’s work to change society and economies. He is founder of the Natural Capital Institute, a research organization located in Sausalito, California. The Natural Capital Institute created Wiser Earth, an open source networking platform that links NGOs, foundations, business, government, social entrepreneurs, students, organizers, academics, activists, scientists, and citizens concerned about the environment and social justice.

He has founded several companies including some of the first natural food companies in the U.S. that relied solely on sustainable agricultural methods. He presently heads OneSun, LLC, an energy company focused on ultra low-cost solar based on green chemistry and biomimicry; and Highwater Global, a social impact fund that employs the highest standards of corporate social, ethical and environmental behavior.

Hawken pointed out that in Colorado we are already seeing the fulfillment of carbon-reduction mandates in the mashup of business and government. But, he continued, the gravity of the energy and climate change situation is elusive. Work is in motion, but it is random, “We need to understand energy in a systemic way, so that it can sustain itself.”

Hawken identified a breakdown of energy into three types, all formed by sunshine:

1. Long energy – takes a long time to form, millions of years. This is the type of energy modern society is exhausting with cars and generators.
2. Slow energy – includes humus, glaciers. Extraction of slow energy occurs in support of resources such as food, agriculture.
3. Fast energy – quickly generated resources, such as food crops.

Each of these three types of energy depends on the other two, but right now we are depleting all three, and releasing carbon into the environment. For example, as we deplete Slow and Fast energy, we need to use more Long energy (fertilizer, oil-based products, etc.) to maintain levels of production.

Between 2000-2008 we used up 20% of the global oil known on earth. How do we become a “de-carbonized society”? Hawken states that the most important place to change carbon is in the built environment. It is notable that the USGBC (United States Green Building Council) is the 2nd or 3rd largest NGO in the world. Hawken implores us to create more councils like USGBC in order to approach carbon reduction systemically and cross-functionally.

Why build communications across disciplines and organizations? “Business does very well at managing what’s measurable. We’re doing something that is immeasurable,” he says. This levels the playing field, but requires people to listen to one another. “We must do this is a way that respects every voice. People need to be heard, and to feel heard. We need to re-design what it means to be a citizen of this earth.”

In response to a question from the audience about the connection between Blessed Unrest (Hawken’s latest book) as a social movement and its relation to ordinary business people, Hawken recalled Rob Walton’s effort to integrate sustainability with Walmart. Instead of learning about sustainability from a book, they learned about it in hands-on retreats in places such as the high country of Colorado. Walmart identified the areas within the company that needed change, then divided into groups to initiate these improvements. Hawken commented, “even the more vociferous critics about sustainability are more interesting inside the room instead of outside the room.” And continued by stating that the business sector always needs to be expanding the conversation.

Hawken emphasized the importance of local action to “take care of what’s around us.” “It’s important to see how it cascades out into the world on a systemic level.” He cautioned change-makers to not take on every thing, as that will lead to burnout and not be helpful. He concluded by imparting the audience to continue the transition to a de-carbonized society with joy. “We know that’s where we’re going so let’s do it with elegance and grace.” For more on Paul Hawken’s optimistic approach to the future, see his September 2009 interview with Worldchanging contributor Kamal Patel.

Following Paul Hawken’s keynote, a panel of public and private sector speakers took the stage: Andre Pettigrew, Executive Director of Denver’s Department of Economic Development, Jim Welch, CEO of Bella Energy, Beth Conover, author of How the West was Warmed and Joseph Danko, Global Director of Sustainable Solutions for CH2MHill.

Conover sees more public-private alignment occurring, and asserts that carbon is the ultimate bottom line. It’s a convenient metric for all kinds of efforts that businesses and government undertake. As part of the Greener Denver initiative, Pettigrew’s commitment is that “every Denver public building will be built with a LEED silver standard.”

Joseph Danko of CH2MHill addressed the question of how to bring youth into the green workforce. CH2MHill incorporates sustainable elements into their projects in the built environment. “Young people and people of color are attracted to that,” he stated. The efforts of green teams within the organization go right to the bottom line. Gen X and Gen Y in these teams inspire the older employees because, says Danko, “we listen to them.”

Denver’s Mayor Hickenlooper followed the panel with inspiring anecdotes about how Denver city government is working hard in “setting the context for public sentiment.” He challenged staff by asking “How do we break down silos within the city, and make sure that departments are talking to each other?’ How do we get people thinking about these issues?” Mayor Hickenlooper has created a culture at city hall that invites new ideas and creates a safe place for innovation in the area of energy conservation.

Governor Ritter closed the morning with his vision for Colorado’s “New Energy Economy” by celebrating the Renewable Energy Bill, legislation that gives Colorado the highest renewable energy standard in the Rocky Mountain West, requiring that 30 percent of electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2020.

In all, the morning was a testimony to the importance of public-private collaboration in creating a more sustainable Colorado, and the efforts that both sectors are implementing to initiate change.

More resources:
Colorado’s Renewable Energy Bill press release
Sustainable Industries Magazine
CH2MHill’s Sustainability Initiatives
USGBC (United States Green Building Council)
Parsons Public Relations

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