Smoky Hills Wind Farm

The Smoky Hills Wind Farm, Kansas is viewed from Interstate 70 in central Kansas. The 250 megawatt farm in two counties entered service in 2008.

At the end of the legislative session each year, a lot flushes out of the four-month session in a deluge. A massive blank check of trust is among this year’s gush: $40 million for, uh, some stuff related to green energy.

For what? Senate Bill 230 doesn’t say, exactly.

Here’s as specific as the bill itself gets:

The Clean Energy Fund — I'd never heard of it before this, either — was started by the Energy Office in 2018 and spun off as a nonprofit. Its executive director, Paul Scharfenberger, is the energy office's former chief operating officer, who left in August 2019, then returned to run the Clean Energy Fund last September.

He helped create the fund starting in 2017 by identifying financing gaps for renewable energy projects, which led to the nonprofit green bank he now leads.

The vagueness and self-fulfilling economics gnawed at Republican Sens. Ray Scott of Grand Junction and Dennis Hisey of Fountain.

"I'm having some concern about turning $30 million over to somebody who hasn't even filed a 990 yet," he said referring to the tax form.

Scharfenberger said raising capital was the first step to launching the green bank, and Sen. Chris Hansen, the Democrat from Denver who sponsored the bill, compared it to a snowball growing as it rolls down hill — a $30 million taxpayer-funded snowball.

Will Toor, the former Boulder mayor who leads the Colorado Energy Office, said the state stands to profit by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating jobs.

“The money will be used to generate seven to 10 times as much private-sector investment,” he said. “We expect over $700 million in private-sector investments.”

Toor promised rural energy projects. He promised small business energy projects. He promised economy-stimulating jobs for contractors.

That's not to say the investments are bad. It's to say taxpayers have no idea what we're getting for big bucks beyond an IOU against climate change.

Immediately before the first hearing on Senate Bill 230 back in April, the Transportation and Energy Committee heard the bipartisan Senate Bill 231, which made a lot of horse sense to me. That latter bill puts $3 million in one-time money from a state stimulus package into the 45-year-old weatherization program to help low-income homeowners and renters save on their heating and cooling bills, money they spend elsewhere in the economy.

There’s some overhead that caught my eye. That bill allows 15%, that’s $450,000, for administrative costs. While generally anything under 30% for paperwork is tolerable, the database Charity Navigator figures operations similar to weatherizers — food banks and other humanitarian aid — is 3% or less, and grantmaking is 7.5%. When the government runs a charity, it’s an expensive one.

The Congressional Budget Office in 2017 looked at government overhead. For contractual and programatic costs using the U.S. Energy Office as an example, administrative costs were 6% of spending.

OK, $1 out of every $7 for bureaucracy, but at least we know where it's going, unlike the green bank. The program currently insulates about 2,000 homes a year, but the need is measured at 500,000, according to the Energy Office.

The one-time money in Senate Bill 231 will weatherize another 250 to 300 homes. Good.

Investments are smart when they're well-identified. Taxpayers' investments as spelled out in Senate Bill 230 are a guessing game built on faith in government.

The Colorado Renewable Energy Society led a group of like-minded interests, including the Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Solar & Storage Association, to cheer on the $40 million in seed money for new renewable spending, whatever that might turn out to be.

They signed a joint letter of support.

“Together, these core programs unlock no- to low-cost finance for infrastructure-focused pollution reducing projects, including cost-saving energy retrofits in buildings (multi-family dwellings, agricultural facilities, and commercial and industrial properties), public electric vehicle fast charging stations, and other under-utilized advanced energy projects facing barriers to market,” they wrote. “Focusing a short-term infusion of state dollars on a diversified portfolio of program investments with significant public benefit will ensure the economic and environmental benefits of advanced energy extend statewide.”

At $40 million for a state of 5.76 million people, that works out to a little under seven bucks for every human, roughly the price of a Whopper combo.

When you’re a large family, you’d likely prefer to keep your Whoppers. Good government intentions for the future can regressive taxation by tomorrow for those who can least afford to pay it.

Simultaneously during the last session, Democrats passed new fees on practically everything with tires to fund greener transportation. Coloradans eventually will cover our fair share of repaying trillions upon trillions in federal stimulus spending.

Spend, spend, spend — we can just print more money, right? We better fix climate change in this generation, because the next one is going to be bogged down with interest payments to the Chinese — print, print, print. 

Until we get serious about responsibly taxing the rich in this country and the many U.S. corporations that play offshore hide-and-seek with their profits, politicians will fleece middle-class taxpayers for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: because that's where the money is.

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