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Home / Articles / Views / Danish Plan /  Double your bet on ClimateSmart
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Thursday, October 8,2009

Double your bet on ClimateSmart

By Paul Danish

About this time last year, Charlie at Mesa Plumbing called with the dreaded news: The parts needed to overhaul my boiler were no longer carried by the gift shop at the National Museum of Pre-Columbian Plumbing and Heating.

"You really need to get one of those new energy-efficient babies," he said. "In the long-run, it will pay for itself with the money you save on your gas bill." "I'm at the age that when it comes to the long run, I'm a short-timer," I said. "But send me an estimate anyway."

He did. Sticker shock ensued.

When I finally came out of it, I immediately implemented Plan B. Plan B involved a strategy of "dynamic procrastination," or more plainly, kicking the can down the road and hoping the old rustbucket in the basement could wheeze through another winter.

Amazingly, Plan B turned out to be a great course of action. Rusty did make it through another winter, and by spring Boulder County was starting to implement the new ClimateSmart Loan Program that had been approved in the 2008 election.

The voters had authorized the county to sell $40 million in bonds and use the revenue to make loans to homeowners and businesses for installing alternative energy and energy conservation technology. (This included everything from insulation and weather-stripping to solar panels and, mirabile dictu, energy-efficient boilers.)

The county sells the bonds. The homeowners who get the loans pay them off. It doesn't cost the taxpayers anything. The loan repayments are collected along with the borrowers' property taxes.

(Actually, the county has been doing this sort of thing for years to help developers finance affordable housing. For that matter, 30 years ago the National Center for Atmospheric Research used the revenue from county-issued bonds to buy the first Cray 1 computer.)

The ClimateSmart loans are for 15 years. They attach to the property, not the borrower, which means if you sell the house before 15 years, the buyer is responsible for the unpaid balance of the loan. The interest rate depends on what the county is able to get when it sells the bonds.

So last April, along with more than 400 other Boulder County homeowners, I put in an application for a ClimateSmart loan. Two months later, Mesa put the new boiler in.

My natural gas bill is down 50 percent from last year. According to Boulder County, the 400 loans it made last spring totaled about $7 million. And this fall, an additional 250 homeowners borrowed about $4.5 million more. The first loans will be made to apartment building owners and businesses in the next few months.

The reason I bring this us is because there is a proposal on this year's ballot memorably named County Ballot Issue 1B to keep the program rolling by authorizing Boulder County and some cooperating counties to issue an additional $85 million in bonds for ClimateSmart loans. (A companion proposal, County Ballot Issue 1C, will allow the county tomake use of a new federal program, the Qualified Energy Conservation Bond program,

to borrow money interest free from the feds to retrofit county buildings with energy efficient systems.)

It doesn't take a genius to see the value of the ClimateSmart program for individuals and businesses who want to cut (or at least stabilize) their energy bills, or who, like me, need to replace worn out HVAC systems and major appliances.

But it's reasonable to ask if there's anything in it for the community at large.

There is, and the most important things aren't even the ones the county is including in its talking points.

Boulder County's stated interest in the ClimateSmart program lies in reducing the local carbon footprint and in creating green jobs (or greening existing ones).

Judging from the first two lending rounds, it can certainly do both of those things, particularly if the program can be sustained.

If, say 1,000 to 1,500 of the county's draftier homes and workplaces a year could cut their energy use by, say 25 to 50 percent by implementing ClimateSmart measures, over a decade or two that could amount to some real overall savings. And it would sustain a few hundred green jobs.

But there are more compelling reasons for government's involvement in this sort of program than the ones the county has put forward.

As I've said before, fighting global warming is discretionary. Adapting to global warming is mandatory. And if there is one certainty in an uncertain world, it is that adapting to a new climate is going to require huge increases in the demand for electricity and natural gas.

A warming world will require big increases in electricity devoted to air conditioning, which already accounts for the largest proportion of residential electrical use. A dryer world will require a huge increase in electric demand for water desalination.

Add to that the amount of new energy that will be required to meet the needs of global population growth currently running at about 100 million a year, even with falling birth rates and to meet the needs of industrialization in the Third World.

From here on out, conserving energy and finding sustainable new sources of it is no longer going to be a green luxury; it's going to be a survival strategy. Or at least an economic survival strategy.

In the past, Boulder County's economic prosperity has been tied in no small part to its locally originated and locally funded efforts to protect its environment. Local comprehensive planning, growth management and open space preservation have made the county an attractive place for the knowledge-based industries of the new economy to set up shop.

In the future, it will be the same with energy. If Boulder County is a place where energy is managed wisely and produced in sustainable ways, it will prosper. If it isn't, it won't.

ClimateSmart is the sort of program that shows what can be done on a local level to enable action without pillaging the public purse. It's a bet on which we should double down by passing 1B and 1C.

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