Q&A with Howard Geller | Toward a less wasteful energy economy

Author: Dan Njegomir - November 5, 2018 - Updated: November 21, 2018

The Southwest Energy Efficiency Project’s Howard Geller, in a panel discussion at an international conference on energy efficiency in Vienna earlier this year. (Photo courtesy IISD Reporting Services)

The folks who drill the earth, or who harvest the sun or wind to power and heat Colorado homes and businesses — they get the headlines. They dominate the unending policy debates over alternative fuels vs. fossil fuels; over fracking and climate change. But they’re not the only ones moving the needle.

Amid all that noise over on the supply side of the energy economy, Howard Geller has been advancing a low-key but influential agenda on the demand side. Its premise: Whatever the sources of the energy we produce, we must consume less. It’ll save us money, resources and maybe even our planet.

His Boulder-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), an advocacy group he founded in 2001, has been pushing for greater efficiency and more conservation across the southwestern U.S. for a long time, and it has scored noteworthy successes along the way.

Geller tells us more about those accomplishments and explains how his organization — which among other endeavors, works closely with major public utilities on efficiency programs — isn’t just another environmental group. But then, Geller isn’t just another environmental activist; the PhD holder has been nationally and internationally recognized for his work in re-thinking the way society consumes energy.

Geller even shares his (very) educated guess as to when the majority of the vehicles on Colorado roads will be powered by electricity; it’s sooner than you might think. For that and more, read the rest of today’s Q&A.

Colorado Politics: SWEEP’s basic premise — conserve what you use, whatever the energy source — seems so fundamental that it’s almost a given. Yet, it also could be more challenging to implement than even the most exotic new energy technology, considering the barriers inherent in human behavior. Does SWEEP’s mission extend beyond changing policy — to changing the average energy consumer’s mind-set?

Howard Geller: Yes, but indirectly. We do not work directly with consumers by and large, but we do work to increase consumer and business awareness of energy efficiency opportunities by supporting effective energy efficiency programs that states, municipalities and utilities implement.

Howard Geller

  • Founder, executive director of the Boulder-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. SWEEP promotes policies and programs to advance energy efficiency in a six-state region that includes Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
  • Former executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. He established ACEEE’s Washington, D.C. office in 1981.
  • Author / co‑author of four books, including “Energy Revolution: Policies for a Sustainable Future,” published in 2003 by Island Press.
  • He has testified many times before Congress on energy issues and has influenced key energy legislation, including the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act of 1987 and the Energy Policy Act of 1992.
  • Received his PhD in Energy Policy from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and holds a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University in New Jersey.

CP: What have been some of SWEEP’s successes in pursuing its mission?

Geller: One of our main focus areas has been to build up the energy efficiency programs implemented by electric and gas utilities in the region — programs that educate consumers and provide incentives for adoption of energy efficiency measures.

Utilities in the region spent about $400 million on these programs in 2017, up from just $25 million in 2001, the year we got started. As a result of these programs, utilities have avoided building 10 large power plants while households and businesses in the region will realize more than $7 billion in net economic benefits through lower utility bills.

CP: What first inspired you to start SWEEP nearly two decades ago, and how has its role in the energy-policy debate evolved over the years?

Geller: The Southwest region was a lagging region in terms of energy efficiency efforts 20 years ago. As I noted above, utility companies did relatively little to help their customers save energy. Also, building energy codes were outdated or nonexistent and state and local governments were not actively promoting more efficient energy use.

Thanks to the work of SWEEP (and others), the region is no longer lagging in terms of policies and efforts to cut energy waste. Energy efficiency is now recognized throughout the Southwest as a cornerstone for rational energy policy.

CP: The makeup of your organization’s board includes corporate as well as consumer perspectives. At the same time, SWEEP has a decidedly “green” vibe, supporting, for example, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s much-debated implementation of “clean car” standards. What distinguishes SWEEP from some of the historically prominent players in the environmental movement?

Geller: SWEEP focuses on policies and programs to increase energy efficiency both for the economic benefits (i.e., saving money) and the environmental benefits (i.e., reducing fossil fuel use and pollutant emissions). In this respect we are not strictly an environmental group, and we attract considerable business support.

CP: What next steps would you like to see Colorado’s legislature and governor take as a matter of public policy?

Geller: A few critical next steps include ramping up energy efficiency efforts outside the service territories of the investor-owned utilities given that energy efficiency opportunities abound in rural as well as urban areas, and adopting new initiatives to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).

EVs are highly energy efficient and also cleaner than gasoline or diesel-fueled vehicles. And as our electricity supply moves away from fossil fuel-based generation and towards renewable power, electric vehicles become even better for the environment.

CP: What difference(s) could this fall’s election make on the future of Colorado energy policy?

Geller: The Republican-controlled state Senate has been hostile to policies that would advance energy efficiency and clean energy, and cut carbon pollution. A shift to Democratic control of the state Senate, along with a Democratic governor, could make a huge difference for advancing a cleaner, low-carbon-emissions future for our state. 

CP: Give us a prediction: By roughly what year will the majority of Colorado’s motor vehicles no longer be powered by fossil fuels?

Geller: With the right kind of leadership and pro-EV policies, we could see the majority of vehicles on the road in 2040 powered by electricity rather than gasoline or diesel oil. Achieving this target in Colorado as well as other states would boost our economy and help limit the devastation caused by carbon pollution and climate disruption.

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is the opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.