Will Toor, the executive director for the Colorado Energy Office, at his office in Denver on Feb. 13, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)
ACROSS COLORADO – By John Herrick for The Colorado Independent. The Colorado Energy Office has become a key battlefield in the fight over the state’s energy future. In 2017, disagreement over whether the office should provide grants to renewables like wind and solar or to fossil fuels like oil and natural gas led to a That consensus is now on shaky ground with the election of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who is pushing an ambitious renewable energy plan that would largely wean the state off of fossil fuels.
To help implement this plan, Polis selected Will Toor, a 57-year-old energy wonk, as the new head the Colorado Energy Office. Toor, who says he has been hearing the alarm bells of climate change since the 1980s, powers his Boulder home with solar panels, uses public transit, and is matter-of-fact when talking about coal-fired power plant closures. He supported 2,500-foot oil and gas drilling setbacks, the most hard-fought measure on last November’s ballot. (Polis did not.) When asked if he has any anxiety about climate change, Toor replied, "how could you not?"
Toor and his staff of 26 full-time employees will have to navigate the ongoing tensions over Colorado’s energy future, a future the state’s politically powerful oil and gas interests have spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years to influence. The transition will be technically challenging, too: Currently, less than 20 percent of the state’s electricity comes from renewables, and there is no clear vision for how an electric grid as large as Colorado’s and one mostly powered by coal-fired generators can run entirely on renewables.
Toor grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to Boulder shortly before he earned a doctorate degree in physics from the University of Chicago. Since then, he has worn many different hats. He served as Boulder mayor and city councilor, as well as a Boulder County commissioner. He co-founded Better Boulder, a political organization that supports new urbanist candidates for office and advocates for urban density and affordable housing in a city where accomplishing either has been an ongoing battle. Over the last six years, he was the director of the transportation program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, or SWEEP, researching energy and transportation efficiency. He also served on the Air Quality Control Commission under former Gov. John Hickenlooper, visiting coal mines and coal-fired power plants on the West Slope.
Toor sat down with The Colorado Independent at his office near the state Capitol. We talked about how he commutes into Denver, the unknowns of the governor’s renewable energy agenda, and what he hears from coal miners who face grim job prospects in the age of climate change.
The following transcript of our conversation, which included follow-ups over the phone, was edited for clarity and length.
How did you end up living in Boulder? A friend and I were hitchhiking back out to Stanford. And the car that we were in broke down at 28th and Colorado in Boulder in July of 1980. We knew one person in Boulder. We called her up and asked if we could stay. Thirty years later, I am still living there.
You bike to the Downtown Boulder Station and bus into Denver. Do you commute this way because of your carbon footprint? There are multiple motivations. I think my whole family tries to minimize our energy use and carbon footprint. I would have to say I like to get some exercise. And being on my bike has multiple benefits. Commuting back and forth between Boulder and Denver, if I had to sit there in traffic, as opposed to getting work done on the bus, my life would be a lot worse. It’s a much more pleasant way to commute, and a much more low-impact way. At home, we remodeled to install solar electric and hot water. Our vehicle is a plug-in electric vehicle. We have a Prius Prime. We try to do local driving that’s all on electricity. Longer distance trips are 55 miles per gallon.
Do you think individual acts of conservation matter? I would say the most important thing we can do is to change our energy systems. I think that end-use efficiency matters a lot … whether it’s building codes or whether it’s investment from utilities in energy efficiency programs or whether it’s financing programs, to make sure that we are making our buildings as efficient as possible. … Personal things matter because you need to add up billions of people doing those personal things. But in order for them to really make a difference, we need to have the right system in place so that things happen on a large scale.
Sunset in Durango as fires burn to the west. (Photo by John Herrick)