When Chris Coons took the microphone at a Senate field hearing nearly one year ago, the chief of Delaware's most populated county looked to be carrying a low national profile into a long-shot campaign against Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) for the upper chamber seat held until recently by Vice President Joe Biden.
But 11 months can be an eon in politics. Coons is now in his first Senate term after trouncing a conservative darling while being hailed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as "my favorite candidate." And Coons' bid was staked in part on the same issue he touted during that Februrary 2009 field hearing: energy efficiency.
Energy conservation is "the most effective investment in reducing emissions of CO2 and other things that cause greenhouse gas warming," Coons said during an October debate against Christine O'Donnell, the tea party stalwart who upset Castle in the GOP primary.
The new senator used a $3.75 million block grant awarded by the 2009 stimulus bill to attract $4 million in outside funding for an overhaul of 20 government buildings in New Castle County, Del., where he served as county executive. That efficiency program, which added solar installations, green roofs and other energy-saving retrofits to the county infrastructure, was one of Coons' signature achievements in office.
"We reduced our operating costs, we reduced our emissions and we ultimately put folks to work here in our own community," he said last year.
Even beyond that efficiency program, Coons brings a strong record on energy to his new role as the junior senator to Tom Carper (D-Del.), a senior member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
"On the full suite of issues we care about, he seems really solid," said League of Conservation Voters legislative representative Alex Taurel, who did a stint on the trail with Coons as part of the group's program to assist top-tier candidates. Indeed, Coons supported a cap-and-trade system to cut U.S. carbon emissions during an election season that saw environmentalism wielded as a cudgel against many Democratic contenders.
But it was efficiency that brought out Coons' rhetorical skill during a tele-town hall meeting that Taurel observed during his work on the campaign. "He was just really knowledgeable and smart about how these sorts of investments save consumers money, how we don't have to burn as much coal, it cuts pollution, it creates jobs," Taurel said.
The savvy that has made Coons a favorite of green groups did not come overnight. Coons is well-versed in the relationship between energy savings and job creation, University of Delaware climate policy professor John Byrne explained in an interview.
"Energy-saving strategies are more jobs-intensive than the traditional energy sector," said Byrne, who also leads Delaware's nonprofit Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU).
Citing estimates by renewable power groups that efficiency investments stand to create upward of three times as many jobs as fossil fuel expansions, Byrne said: "I think [Coons] would like to expand [energy conservation programs] so you get the synergy of both, an environmental and economic benefit."
After New Castle County received its $3.75 million in stimulus money for efficiency, Coons' home base proposed to allow smaller localities to participate in its contract with Ameresco Inc., a private firm that conducts energy audits aimed at pinpointing ideal opportunities for retrofits.
That "piggyback" option, as it was described in a state summary of stimulus plans, used New Castle's bigger buying power to help its smaller neighbors speed up their progress on efficiency. A similar strategy is employed by the Delaware SEU and like-minded green utilities in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., Byrne said.
Coons took another pro-efficiency step in 2007 by aligning New Castle with Cities for Climate Protection, an 18-year-old effort by the nonprofit International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) to share best practices on handling the on-the-ground impacts of a changing climate.
Part of that project involves developing a local "climate action plan" for changes in transportation, consumption, waste management and land use that can reduce an area's overall carbon footprint. Such steps "not only reduce energy use and save much-needed taxpayer dollars, but they also illustrate a local government's commitment to the environment and position elected officials as leaders in their communities who are committed to change," ICLEI executive director Martin Chávez said via e-mail.
Coons' public support for the cap-and-trade bill, as well as other strategies to cut U.S. emissions, became fodder for several campaign trail attacks from O'Donnell and her allies. The GOP nominee accused Coons of planning to levy an "energy tax" on voters -- referencing estimates that the cap-and-trade measure would increase energy prices -- and charged that her opponent stood to benefit personally from passage of emissions limits.
But Coons quickly parried the attempt to impugn his ties to W.L. Gore, the company run by his stepfather that produces Gore-Tex fabrics and air filters, among thousands of other products. Gore's business ventures are "so distant from any particular proposal on cap and trade -- it took a couple of minutes to even understand what she was talking about," Coons said during a pre-election debate with O'Donnell (Greenwire, Oct. 14, 2010).
Solar and wind
Solar power is another high-priority issue for Coons' state, where the University of Delaware runs a dedicated solar engineering program, and for the new junior senator. A subsidiary of LS Power Group recently unveiled plans to build a 10-megawatt solar facility in the Delaware capital of Dover, the first utility-scale solar plant in the region and a prime example of the "kind of thing Senator Coons sees" arising from more federal focus on renewables, as Byrne put it.
Yet another renewable source could play an even bigger role in Coons' first term: offshore wind. One week after he took office, Coons joined in the Interior Department's announcement of a new expedited process for environmental review and permitting of wind projects off the Atlantic Coast (Greenwire, Nov. 23, 2010).
"He just brings so much to the table," Offshore Wind Development Coalition President Jim Lanard, whose group represents several companies joining the race to develop coastal wind farms, said of Coons. "In these tense times the parties seem to have with each other, he is somebody who can work across party barriers -- offshore wind is the perfect opportunity for that bipartisan support."
In the weeks since the Interior project began, Coons has continued championing his state's potential for coastal wind generation, which is often ranked alongside Massachusetts as tops in the nation. After a presidential panel appointed to investigate the springtime Gulf of Mexico oil spill released its findings last week, Coons issued a statement declaring himself "proud that instead of offshore oil rigs, offshore wind turbines are planned for Delaware."