Citizen Action Groups Help Leaders Form Energy Policy

Groups in Wisconsin and Colorado Make Their Voices Heard

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Leslie Glustrom is a biochemist and research director of Clean Energy Action, a Boulder, Colo., citizen group that challenges continued reliance on coal-based energy.

Posted: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 1:27 pm

MADISON, Wis. - Can local governments work together with citizen action groups to effectively transition America away from reliance on fossil fuels? The answer in Wisconsin and Colorado seems to be yes.

Members of Wisconsin's renewable energy industry convened in Madison for the RENEW Wisconsin Energy Policy Summit last week. The diverse crowd of renewable energy manufacturers, installers, state utilities, environmental advocacy groups, university representatives, and government officials, including Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, came together to focus their efforts on retaking the initiative in the fight for a more sustainable energy future for Wisconsin.

Members heard from keynote speaker Leslie Glustrom, a biochemist who belongs to a similar organization in Boulder, Colo. - a group that recently led a successful ballot initiative to authorize creation of a municipal utility in that city.

Don Wichert, founder of RENEW and former chief of energy resources with the Wisconsin Department of Administration and current director of renewable energy services at the Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation created the advocacy group more than 20 years ago to address government officials about clean energy development in the state.

Wichert said Wisconsin spends nearly $6 billion per year on imported coal, petroleum, and natural gas. "As a renewable energy advocacy group composed of concerned citizens, clean energy businesses, environmental organizations, and government employees, RENEW Wisconsin seeks to change the way people think about and consume energy through a combination of advocacy, education, and creative partnerships with state and local governments, businesses, utilities, and citizen groups," Wichert said.

Michael Vickerman, long-time executive director of RENEW, expressed optimism that, "despite current rollbacks of renewable energy policies, including the suspension of clean energy incentives and a weakening of state laws that leverage utility-purchased renewable energy, there is still a network of supportive local officials throughout the state." He challenged advocates to resist acquiescing to the current political situation, and instead, use the sum influence of the clean energy industry, including non-profits and concerned citizens, to drum up support for clean energy development. Vickerman provided three guiding principles as a springboard to start discussion on how to retake the initiative.

First, reframe the message by presenting the industry's true potential as a group of highly-motivated, dynamic organizations with a unifying business plan that will generate green jobs. Second, assert the fact that renewable energy is something intensely desired by businesses and citizens, because it gives customers more options, businesses increased market appeal, and a surefire pathway to more local jobs. And finally, pursue community-owned renewable projects that will keep energy production local and redirect investment into the area economy.

Glustrom, research director of the Boulder, Colo. Clean Energy Action (CEA), presented a roadmap for the renewable energy industry. CEA works at the local, state, and national level to accelerate the transition to a post-fossil fuel world based on clean energy, Glustrom said. The group recently led a successful ballot initiative to authorize creation of a municipal utility through "Citizen Power" by inspiring, training, and empowering citizens to advocate for decreased reliance on fossil fuels and increased reliance on clean energy backed by impartial research, she said.

Throughout history, Glustrom said, "social change has been the result of a concerted effort by groups of like-minded individuals." Citing examples such as the abolitionist and suffragette movements, Glustrom explained how grassroots organization and individual action could result in monumental change. Inaction is often the largest hurdle to overcome, she said, and although, she acknowledged the journey would be a difficult one, Glustrom predicted victory for the clean energy movement.

"It will take decades to create change; not days, months, or even a year, but I seriously believe that by 2050, we will be beyond fossil fuels," she said.

Glustrom said renewable energy advocates need to build a more inclusive team of citizens who are interested in a sustainable future, but do not necessarily need to have expert knowledge of renewable technologies. Her message: anyone can help raise funds and contribute their opinion to policy-makers. "Inclusive, inspiring, and interlocking teams hold the key to success," she said. "To start building this team, those with a vested interest in the industry's development need to educate interested individuals and parties."

Glustrom then illustrated how CEA began to overcome what she believes is one of the greatest current national challenges: U.S. reliance on fossil fuels. For many states, coal is sourced from Appalachia and the West, and millions of dollars are leaving those states to pay for imported coal. As presented by Glustrom, CEA's research showed that the price of coal is currently increasing by 13 percent annually, mostly due to dwindling, easy-to-extract supplies.

"The root of the problem is the prevailing notion that coal is cheap, abundant, and reliable, when in actuality, U.S. coal supplies are running out, making the extraction process more expensive and supply-chains progressively unstable," Glustrom argued. "The choice is simple for citizens and policy-makers: continue to burn energy dollars, or invest energy dollars in a sustainable future."

Glustrom said CEA and the citizens of Boulder chose the latter and began a movement for a community energy program based on the creation of a municipal utility.

Citizens for Boulder's Clean Energy Future (http://bouldercleanenergyfuture.org/Home.html" target= "_blank">CBCEF), creators of http://www.renewablesyes.org/" target= "_blank">RenewablesYES.org, is a volunteer citizen group that organized around the idea of disseminating CEA's research to the public. Julie Zahniser, CEA board president and communications coordinator of RenewablesYES, explained how Boulder citizens got involved in the process. Zahniser said getting the referendum passed to explore the possibility of replacing the incumbent utility provider, Xcel Energy, with a municipal energy program started by getting the Boulder community engaged with energy policies.

"The success of the movement was the promotion of the overarching goal using different organizations," Zahniser said. RenewablesYES reached a variety of audiences by targeting different age groups, businesses, and environmentalist organizations. The non-profit started by bringing expertise to city and state officials as well as a variety of interested citizen groups.

Social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, were used to tap the interest of the younger generations, and RenewablesYES recruited the help of organizations such as Earth Guardians and New Era Colorado, that also engaged younger demographics with sustainability information.

For the middle-aged audience, neighborhood networks and dinner parties were organized to educate citizens, while a supportive local newspaper, the Boulder Daily Camera, announced a series of events and published articles telling concerned Boulder citizens and businesses how they could help the cause. Renewables YES also organized meetings for business professionals focused on how renewable energy will support job creation. The breadth of outreach efforts and connections made by citizens with government officials aided the movement's success, Zahniser said.

Alexander Brasch is a UW-Madison graduate with a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Human Geography. He is currently a communications/mapping consultant with RENEW Wisconsin.

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