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Colorado Voters Get Revved Up Over Energy Policy

Oct 3, 2012
Originally published on October 3, 2012 8:17 pm

The presidential debates are expected to cover a wide range of topics, from the economy to foreign policy to health care. Wednesday night's debate will focus on domestic policy — and one topic that's likely to come up is energy.

It's a subject that is certainly on the minds of voters in Larimer County, Colo. Last week, in a rural area outside Fort Collins, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan held a campaign event in a warehouse at Walker Mowers, a family-owned manufacturer of lawn mowers and tractors.

Enthusiastic supporters cheered as Ryan called for a wide-ranging energy policy.

"We have lots of energy in this country," he said. "Let's use that energy in this country and put people back to work! You've got it all right here — oil, gas, to coal to renewables. Colorado's got it all!"

He went on to say that President Obama is standing in the way of a more comprehensive energy policy, that there are too many federal regulations on drilling for domestic oil and gas. It's a sentiment that many at the rally seemed to share — people like Gary Albers, a strong supporter of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Albers believes that those federal restrictions are keeping the U.S. overly reliant on foreign oil. Additionally, he says, gas is expensive, which is making a tough economic time even tougher. But Albers also agrees with Ryan about renewables.

"I think we have to invest in our natural resources, as well as in natural energies such as wind and solar," he says.

Another Republican, Wade Troxell, also believes in those natural energies. Troxell is an elected member on the nonpartisan City Council of Fort Collins and an associate dean at the College of Engineering at Colorado State University. He is openly passionate about the technology and the policy behind renewable energy, specifically the smart grid.

Fort Collins, which is Larimer County's seat, has always been on the leading edge of energy innovation, even as far back as the 1970s. There's a solar village in Fort Collins, and the university's Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory is recognized internationally for a number of projects related to natural gas and smart-grid technologies.

Many businesses around Fort Collins have embraced renewable energy and sustainability, including one of the city's most well-known companies — the New Belgium Brewing Co.

Jenn Vervier, the brewery's director of sustainability, details some of the energy-saving efforts the company makes, like making ice at night, when it's cold. The brewery also produces some of its own electricity, using the methane gas created by treating processed wastewater.

"We capture the methane in two large balloons on the property and pipe that methane back into the plant to use in two engines, which create electricity on-site," she explains. That system can provide up to 15 percent of New Belgium's electrical needs. The brewery also uses energy from solar panels — an investment it was able to make because of the federal stimulus, which offered grants for renewable energy projects.

Even through the worst of the downturn, the New Belgium Brewery was able to prosper, so much so that it recently bought land for another brewery in Asheville, N.C. Vervier knows that there's not likely to be any federal money this time around, even though she thinks government should help businesses move toward sustainability. Still, she plans to vote for Obama and the Democrats, citing their more pro-environmental record.

As for Troxell? He, too, is committed to renewable resources and sustainability, and while he has yet to make a final decision, he says he believes in a lot of things about the Romney campaign. He doesn't think much has been accomplished in the past four years but — like many of the people we met in Fort Collins — seems to take a balanced view of the current political scene.

"At the end of the day," he says, "who's elected tends to be moderated in one way or another and, I think in Colorado, reflective of the purple state, there tends to be a lot of broader perspectives."

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Obama and Mitt Romney meet tonight on stage in Denver, Colorado for their first debate. The moderator is Jim Lehrer. The focus is domestic policy, meaning he will ask about everything from health care, to the role of government, to the economy - which, in turn, leads to issues like energy policy.

MONTAGNE: Energy is certainly on the minds of voters in Colorado, as we found when we visited Larimer County, about an hour north of Denver, for our series First and Main.

INSKEEP: We began at the corner of First and Main Street, an iconic intersection in Florida, Hillsborough County - a contested county there. We moved on to the state of Wisconsin, listening to voters think.

Our final stop is Colorado, where the two candidates are still in a statistical dead-heat.

MONTAGNE: And Steve, as it happened, on my first morning in Larimer County, Paul Ryan showed up. A few weeks ago, President Obama made a campaign stop on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

The Romney-Ryan campaign held its rally in a rural area a few miles out of town. There, enthusiastic supporters packed into a warehouse at Walker Mowers, a family-owned manufacturer of lawnmowers and tractors. The Republican vice presidential candidate spoke under a banner reading: We Can't Afford Four More Years.


PAUL RYAN: And one thing we need to do, what people in Colorado know so well, we have lots of energy in this country. Let's use that energy in this country and put people back to work. You've got it all right here: oil, gas, to coal to renewables. Colorado's got it all. President Obama has been standing in the way of this.

MONTAGNE: You'll notice that talking about energy, Paul Ryan mentioned renewables. That goes over well here, where people are proud of Colorado's 300 days of sun each year, and the state's claim to every possible energy resource except, as one put it, tidal waves.

Outside the Ryan rally, Gary Albers, who's retired from a career in law enforcement, emphasized that he embraces all of the above.

GARY ALBERS: Well, I think we have to invest in our natural resources, as well as in natural energies such as, you know, wind, solar. Unfortunately, the solar and the wind only can handle a portion of our needs, and we put so many restrictions on drilling and, you know, it's keeping us dependent on foreign oil. And we're not ready to just cut off all oil, otherwise everybody would be driving electric cars, and we're not. So, you know, we've got a long way to go, and we're paying a price in double for gasoline in the last four years, and most people are having a hard time dealing with that. I - you know, it's expensive.

MONTAGNE: Hardly drill, baby, drill, though Gary Albers is a strong supporter of Mitt Romney, and - he smiles - so is his wife, his mother and both his sons.

ALBERS: I have one in college and one who's 17, has more anti-Obama stickers on his truck than anybody in the school. You know, he's not real popular with the teachers right now, because they're pretty liberal.

MONTAGNE: Let's hear now from another Republican, one who's on the city council of Fort Collins - which, by the way, is nonpartisan. Wade Troxell was born and raised here.

WADE TROXELL: It's changed over the years. Its historical roots are agricultural, so more conservative. And I think now Colorado and Larimer County and Fort Collins is much more purple. Really...

MONTAGNE: Wade Troxell joined us on the patio of a restaurant just off the campus of Colorado State University. He's an associate dean in the college of engineering and has long had a passion - as he calls it - for both the technology and the policy behind renewable energy.

TROXELL: We have an interesting mix of innovation, of companies that are forward-thinking and very innovative. We historically have had a lot of innovation related to renewable energy going back to the 1970s. We have Solar Village in Fort Collins, and now our engines and energy conversion laboratory is known around the world for any number of projects related to natural gas and smart grid.

MONTAGNE: The smart grid is a phrase you hear often in Fort Collins. The idea is to get away from an electrical system that is bound to an often distant central location, like a coal plant.

TROXELL: Right now, the operation of an electric power system is virtually without much user interaction other than expecting the lights to come on when you turn the switch. And going forward, there's going to be a lot more interaction with the users....

MONTAGNE: To get look at how that might work, let's go to a Brewery not far from here. Since 1991, it's been producing a very popular craft beer called Fat Tire.

JENN VERVIER: So we're in what we call Brew House 2, so this is where we make the majority of our beer. This is the beginning of the process.

MONTAGNE: That's Jenn Vervier. She's director of sustainability for New Belgium Brewery. We're peering, at this moment, into a huge, stainless steel vat at the beginning of the brewing process.

VERVIER: So it's like a big pot of oatmeal, as it were, but it's malted barley.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, it's swirling around there. It does look like a big, monster bowl of oatmeal.

VERVIER: Exactly. And then through progressive...

MONTAGNE: A few feet away and later in the process, we look into a vat that, for all the world, looks like amber-colored river rapids.

VERVIER: The liquid is running over a very hot plate. So, instead of boiling a whole big vat, we're just boiling it in sheets, so you would use less energy overall to boil it in that thin film.

MONTAGNE: The entire operation here at the brewery is geared towards conserving energy in ways big and small, like making ice at night when it's cold - far more complicated - creating their own energy. The idea is to automatically replace the electricity coming from the local utility when the smart grid indicates that demand is peaking. One way is to use the methane gas created when they treat their processed wastewater.

VERVIER: And we capture the methane in two large balloons out on the property, and pipe that methane back into the plant to use in two engines, which create electricity on site.

MONTAGNE: That provides 15 percent of the electricity the brewery uses. And then there are the solar panels. Here, the company benefitted from the federal stimulus, which offered grants for renewable energy projects.


MONTAGNE: And the clinking bottles you're hearing are the sound of success. Even through the worst of the downturn, New Belgium Brewery has prospered - so much so that they bought the land for another brewery in Asheville, North Carolina. And this time, they know they can't count on a federal subsidy for their solar panels, which brings us back to politics. Standing in a room surrounded by the massive oak barrels for brewing sour beer, I asked Jenn Vervier if the issue in this election most important to her is the obvious one: moving away from fossil fuels.

VERVIER: Yes. And my personal beliefs are in getting government to help businesses make the right decision. And I think that incentives and regulation helps to do that to level the playing field and to ensure that these natural resources are available for generations to come.

MONTAGNE: So, does that go towards the Democrats or the Republicans?

VERVIER: Today, that's gone towards the Democrats.

MONTAGNE: OK. Let's hear again from City Councilman Wade Troxell, a Republican who's also committed to renewable resources and finds a lot to like in his party's candidate.

TROXELL: At the end of the day, who's elected tends to be moderated in one way or another. And I think in Colorado, reflective of the purple state, there tends to be a lot of broader perspectives. You know, you always have stronger extremes, but I've always tried to represent, I think, this broad community, and I think it spans those kind of distinctions that might be playing out federally.

MONTAGNE: One thing about people we spoke to in Fort Collins: There seems to be a certain pride in being moderate - you know, engage in a heartfelt political debate, and then go share a beer, which is exactly what we did in the tasting room of the New Belgium Brewery.

VERVIER: This is our fall seasonal. This is a wheat beer with coriander and orange peel. 1554 is a Brussels-style brown ale.

MONTAGNE: Coriander and orange peel?

VERVIER: You want to try that?



MONTAGNE: It's good. Maybe I'll just have to have a whole beer.

It's a little early still, but, Steve, cheers.

INSKEEP: Hey, it's always 5 o'clock somewhere.

MONTAGNE: And we'll hear more from Larimer County, Colorado next week in our series First and Main.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.