Howard Geller’s energy mission

Why efficiency has become a big part of energy in Colorado during 21st century

 by Allen Best

Howard Geller would never be found marching to close a coal-fired coal plant. He’s an activist with a carefully defined mission, but street protest is not his style. To see his handiwork you must dive deep into the filings of state utility commissions, go to legislative hearings, perhaps follow around a few of his 7 employees in Colorado and 6 in other states where the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project operates to understand how Geller has shaped the energy pivot of the last 20 years.

Two decades after he moved to Colorado and founded SWEEP, Geller is moving on into the world of consulting, leaving his office and position as executive director to Elise Jones, who will simultaneously end her second of two terms as a commissioner in Boulder County. “Twenty years is about the right amount of time,” he said last Friday.

In 2001, when Geller moved from Washington D.C. to Boulder, utilities in Colorado and other southwestern states devoted little effort to energy efficiency. Major electrical utilities in the Southwestern states then spent $20 million to help their customers save energy and reduce their bills. Today, the amount has increased almost 20-fold. Those same utilities in recent years have been spending $350 million to $400 million to promote energy efficiency.

“Comprehensive energy efficiency programs are now standard for utilities,” he says. The utilities “realize their customers like these programs. They realize that saving energy is the least costly way of providing energy, of saving kilowatt-hours. It’s a cost-effective resource,” he says, a line he has likely used thousands of times in the last 40 years.

This is from the Jan. 15, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at bigpivots.com

In 1981, Geller had moved to Washington D.C. hoping to land a job with an environmental organization. He had a new master’s degree from Princeton in mechanical engineering, and his master’s advisor alerted him to a new organization called American Council for Energy Efficiency Economy that had funding for a Washington office. Would Geller like to be that first employee? “That sounded great,” he remembers.

This was the first year of the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who famously had the solar panels installed by the prior White House occupant removed. But in 1987, Reagan signed into law the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act. The law significantly elevated the federal presence in ensuring uniformity of minimum levels of energy efficiency for refrigerators, clothes dryers, and other household appliances.

Geller had a role in shaping the law. In a 1996 paper published in a journal called Energy and Buildings, he said the regulations were projected to displace the need for 31 large (500 megawatt) baseload power plants by 2000. Today, Geller calls it the most important legislation yet in advancing energy efficiency other than the adoption of the so-called CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) efficiency standards for automobiles in 1975 and updated several times then.

A self-described workaholic, Geller in 2001 was tiring of Washington and wanted an improved quality of life for himself and his young family. Looking across the nation, he saw the Southwest as lagging. Abundant low-sulfur coal yielded relatively cheap electricity. Saving energy had seemed less imperative. And there was also the 20th century mindset that the way to prosperity was through production, not efficiency.

With the help and funding sources of Law and Water Fund of the Rockies, now called Western Resource Advocates, and that organization’s Bruce Driver and John Nielson, he started SWEEP. Boulder was, and is, the headquarters.

Transformation of Xcel

From the start, SWEEP has differed from other major environmental organizations in its narrow focus on energy efficiency. SWEEP makes the argument to both utilities and state regulators that energy efficiency can work for both the customers and the utility. Xcel Energy, an investor-owned utility, can recover the money invested in these programs through rates on customers, just as it would if building a new power plant. Customers still get lower bills. “We have made energy efficiency a win-win for customers and utilities,” says Geller.

“Xcel is now spending more than $100 million a year saving customers electricity and natural gas with programs for low-income households, other households, small businesses, larger businesses and very large businesses,” he says. “There are programs for every customer.”

Colorado, he reports, has moved up to 11th place among the states in the annual ranking by American Council for Energy Efficiency Economy. Nevada was the most improved in that 2020 ranking and New Mexico has moved up a lot. He credits Salt River Project, the utility serving the Phoenix area and a part-owner of coal-fired power plants in northwestern Colorado, with being an outstanding utility.

“It’s not a good idea to waste energy, whether it’s fossil-based energy or renewables,” he says.

Like Amory Lovins, who co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute in 1983, the career of Geller was strongly influenced by the Arab oil embargo of 1973. The scarcity of oil produced new attention to energy ecosystems, the links between energy and the environment, and the alternatives.

Then an undergraduate student at Clark University, a liberal-arts institution in Worcester, Mass., Geller co-majored in physics and what is now called environmental studies. Then, for his master’s thesis at Princeton, he modeled community energy systems, looking at technical performance as well as their environmental and economic performances.

Geller has a global outlook. He spent 16 months in India after receiving his master’s degree in what he describes as his personal Peace Corp-type experience, working with a very inspiring individual on technologies for rural areas. A few years later, he was invited to help start energy efficiency programs in Brazil. Learning Portuguese, he earned a doctorate in energy policy from the University of Sao Paulo while helping start Brazil’s National Electricity Conservation Program.

While in Brazil, Geller met a woman who became his wife. In choosing to relocate to Boulder, activities such as snowboarding and track and the quality of education available at the Boulder High School contributed to their choice.

Cause for optimism

Reviewing his career, Geller admits to occasional discouragement but insists that he generally remains optimistic. “We have made a lot of progress,” he says. He cites the 130 laws that SWEEP has helped pass in Southwestern states.

“Clearly the politics matter. We have opportunities at times, and lack of opportunities at other times, depending upon the political environment. The Trump administration has been a disaster for the clean energy transition, but we need to make up for that during the next few years. Colorado was a backward state (when I got here) but things really got rolling in a big way under Gov. (Bill) Ritter. New Mexico and Nevada now have progressive governors and great things are happening in those states.”

Geller says SWEEP has studiously avoided blue-state, red-state deal dichotomies. His organization works with Republicans as well as Democrats—and has accomplished much in Arizona during a time when it has had a Republican governor, Doug Ducey. At the same time, it has had almost no presence in Wyoming.

The most persuasive arguments for energy efficiency vary depending upon the locale. In some places, it’s the jobs, in other places the climate, and, in Salt Lake City, which often becomes shrouded during winter months under an inverted cloud of toxins caused by emissions from cars and buildings, there’s a different message yet.

Colorado stands apart, now noted nationally for its ambitions and accomplishments in the clean energy transition.

“It’s not a traditional left-wing kind of state,” concedes Geller. “It’s not a California or a Vermont or a Massachusetts that is expected to be in the front. Colorado not long ago had Republican senators and governors, then it moved to purple and has now become moderately blue. But Colorado had and still has a lot of fossil fuel production, a lot oil and natural gas production and some coal production,” he points out.

Now, Colorado has begun to demonstrate that transition can be done rapidly and cost effectively while still tending to needs of economically disadvantaged communities, he says. More than a coastal state, Colorado can provide an example for other interior states.

Even after coal plants disappear

Coal plants are now being rapidly retired, he says, but energy efficiency will remain very important in helping facilitate high levels of renewables. The essential task is to contour or shape demand to better match supplies of renewables. This can be done through such things as smart thermostats and grid-connected hot-water heaters. He hopes senators from the Southwestern states—perhaps Michael Bennet or John Hickenlooper of Colorado or Mitt Romney from Utah – will champion the case for an expanded federal role in this new frontier of energy efficiency.

If his life has been pushing for incremental change, Geller is like so many others in seeing the need for a brisker movement. “We can’t solve all our problems in one fell swoop in 2021,” he says. “But we can’t delay. We really need to move in the next 5 years.”

Big task for Elise Jones will be to redefine efficiency programs for new times

For Elise Jones, who will become executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project in late January, one fundamental challenge will be to help design programs that recognize changing needs of the 2020s.

Elise Jones
Elise Jones

Those deeply engaged in utility planning and the regulatory process say if demand-side management programs stay the same, they will risk falling behind in the rapid changes during the coming decade of beneficial electrification applied to transportation and buildings.

A Boulder County commissioner for the past 8 years, Jones in late January will replace Howard Geller, who founded SWEEP in 2002. He will remain with SWEEP through February and has plans to become a consultant.

Prior to elective office, Jones was executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, the predecessor to Conservation Colorado, for 13 years.

She is also a member of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, with a term ending in January 2022. It has become one of the most important appointee boards in Colorado, given responsibility by 2019 legislation for creating policies that will result in dramatic and swift decarbonization of Colorado’s economy.

In addition, Jones serves on a variety of other boards, commissions, and committees.

“Elise is a highly regarded and passionate clean energy and sustainability advocate, as well as an accomplished nonprofit leader,” said Bruce Ray, chair of the board of directors for SWEEP.

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Allen Best