Cote’s Colorado: Bill Ritter aims to keep the sun and wind by his side

FORT COLLINS – If anyone wants to challenge Bill Ritter’s reputation as the “greenest governor in America,” he’ll be around to defend it.

As Ritter prepared to exit the governor’s mansion last month, editorial writers pondered the success of his four years in office: his schizoid stance between labor and business; his championing of education and health-care reform during one of the toughest economic climates in U.S. history.

By accepting a $300,000 a year post to run a new policy center at Colorado State University, Ritter ensures that his work promoting clean-energy technologies and protecting the environment will remain his most lasting legacy.

Ritter announced the new job with his alma mater hours before presenting a keynote address in Fort Collins as part of a daylong event to promote the city’s smart-grid program. And he made no secret that appearing at an energy-oriented event to deliver what was to be his last such speech as governor was the exit he desired.

“It’s really fitting that we’re here,” Ritter told about 200 people packed into a conference room at a new commercial building designed to become an incubator for clean-tech companies. “(Smart grid) is such an important part of the clean-energy puzzle.”

During his tenure, Ritter signed 57 clean-energy bills into law. One will require 30 percent of Colorado’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020; another will prompt Xcel Energy to convert its older coal plants to use natural gas. And he helped attract new-energy icons like Denmark-based Vestas Wind Systems, Germany-based SMA Solar Technologies and Japan-based American Zephyr Corp. to Colorado.

Through his post as director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at CSU, Ritter aims to help the school promote public policy, research and education, building upon what his administration has achieved.

“We’ve done a lot over a four-year period and probably as much as any state in the country – I would argue more than any state in the country,” Ritter said during a press conference in Fort Collins. “What this does is give me and CSU the ability to become a bigger part of the national conversation.”

For Ritter, that conversation is stressing the connection between renewable energy and the economy, national security and environmental challenges. Although the “cap-and-trade” Waxman-Markey Bill has faded from the national debate, he expects the issue to arise again.

“I believe that Congress still needs to act in a bipartisan way on energy legislation that looks at climate issues and that integrates that thinking on climate issues with their thinking on energy policy,” said Ritter, who added that such legislation might take the form of a low-carbon standard rather than a renewable energy standard – and one that considers the economic potential of a revised energy policy.

The new center will be funded entirely with private sources, including San Francisco-based Energy Foundation and Fort Collins-based Bohemian Foundation, the latter led by billionaire Democratic supporter and philanthropist Pat Stryker. CSU President Tony Frank said he approached Ritter about directing the center after discussing with some colleagues at a post-election event what the governor might do after leaving office. He expects Ritter will be able to build on the school’s track record on energy and the environment, and push for greater implementation by government.

“How can we replicate and build on some of the successes that we’ve had in northern Colorado and here in Colorado on a broader scale?” Frank said. “If those things happen, it will be great for Colorado State University and our researchers and our students, and it will be great for Colorado. But most importantly, it will be good for our country.”

Ritter, who has frequently touted Colorado’s renewable energy industry and discussed climate change issues overseas, will likely spend much of his time traveling as part of his new role, including representing CSU in Washington, D.C.

“If Gov. Ritter winds up in a small office on campus sending me e-mails complaining about parking, something has gone tragically wrong,” Frank said.
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