By Marisa McNatt
Almost 10 years have passed since Boulder City Council set a goal of reducing citywide greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Based on last year’s figures, the city fell short of meeting the goal by about 25 percent, or 298,331 metric tons of carbon dioxide. This is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of about 58,500 passenger vehicles.
“The question for us is: What does that mean? Does that mean as a community we’ve failed, or as a community we need to make better inroads?” asks Kara Mertz, manager of the city of Boulder’s Local Environmental Action Division.
Not only has Boulder failed to reach the 2012 goal, citywide emissions were up slightly in 2010 compared to 2009. The primary reason for Boulder’s failure to reach the 2012 goal and slight increase in emissions is that there was initially no plan for how to get there, Mertz explains.
The city established its emissions reduction goal in 2002, based on the 1997 Kyoto Protocol — an international agreement for industrialized countries to reduce emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The U.S. chose not to sign the protocol and, in response, municipalities across the country, including Boulder, chose to create their own emissions reduction target goals.
It wasn’t until 2007 that City Council implemented a formal plan and strategies — called the Climate Action Plan, or the CAP — for reducing local emissions. However, since the CAP strategies were novel upon implementation, there was no way of knowing if the approaches would actually result in significant greenhouse gas reductions, Mertz says.
“What we find is when we are creating services and goals it’s a lot harder to get to that goal that was essentially pulled out of the sky,” says Mertz. “We can’t really take 100,000 cars off the road every day.”
Since energy use in buildings accounts for the largest portion of Boulder’s greenhouse gas emissions — almost 80 percent — approaches that significantly reduce emissions from the commercial and residential sectors are particularly important. Other sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the city include landfill gas and vehicle fuel, which comprise 2.5 and 21.3 percent of the city’s total emissions respectively.
Striving for Energy Efficiency
The Climate Action Plan includes programs that maximize opportunities for energy efficiency in new buildings. By ensuring that all new buildings and residential remodels and additions are constructed to be at least 30 percent more energy efficient than the standard base code, the Green Buildings and Green Points program avoided an estimated 5,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2010. This is equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity use of 566 homes in a year.
However, upgrading the energy efficiency of existing buildings is proving to be more challenging. From 2007 to 2009 the city made energy audits accessible to residents and businesses through the Residential Energy Audit Program, or REAP,* which was run by the Center for ReSource Conservation and involved a specialist performing an assessment of energy consumption and recommending measures to increase energy efficiency. However, the voluntary program made only a small dent with respect to reducing the city’s energy use.
The idea was that potential savings on electricity bills would drive many homeowners to participate in the efficiency upgrade program, but the initial costs and determining the next steps for installing home improvements was a deterrent for many.
“It was still a big hassle,” Mertz says. Less than 5 percent of people who got an energy audit actually did anything about it, she says.
Also, millions of dollars for installing efficiency upgrades were suspended in spring 2010. The loan program for implementing upgrades, called ClimateSmart, was put on hold after Fannie May and Freddie Mac changed their policy. This made participating in REAP even more of a challenge.
To prompt more residents and business owners to increase energy efficiency, the city launched a fresh retrofit strategy at the beginning of 2011, changing the name from REAP to EnergySmart.
The new strategy serves as a “one-stop-shop” for energy efficiency services that make implementing energy efficiency measures substantially easier and more cost-effective. Through EnergySmart, homeowners and businesses connect with an energy adviser who performs quick energy savings solutions, such as installing efficient light bulbs, water-saving showerheads and faucet aerators. The adviser also connects participants with a specialist for performing an audit, cost estimates for upgrades, loan program applications, and a certified contractor to perform the upgrades.
Since the launch of EnergySmart, Boulder residents have enrolled 2,759 homes and 960 businesses in the program, according to city data.**
“That’s a huge improvement for us,” Mertz says.
The EnergySmart loan program expected to launch this spring is projected to be more reliable than the previous program because of a different lending mechanism. The EnergySmart loan will still provide homeowners with the money they need to make efficiency upgrades, but it will be administered through Elevations Credit Union and backed by money awarded to Boulder County in 2010 from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Additionally, with rental housing comprising almost 60 percent of Boulder’s housing stock, in 2010 City Council unanimously approved mandatory energy efficiency standards for existing rental properties. Called SmartRegs, the program requires all rental property to meet a basic energy efficiency standard by 2019. For $120 an inspector and adviser will assist the property owner in making quick installs and cost-effective investments toward compliances.
However, the 2010/2011 CAP Progress Report notes, “even in an aggressive scenario, continued participation in these conservation programs can only be expected to make a 10 to 15 percent advancement toward the whole of Boulder’s Kyoto Protocol goal.”
Boulder’s Energy Future Uncertain
Ultimately, the city isn’t going to see a real drop in emissions until there’s a significant reduction in energy demand and the energy supply becomes less carbon intensive. Currently, 57 percent of Boulder’s energy supply comes from coal and 32 percent comes from natural gas.
“Once energy measures are implemented the supply side becomes the biggest issue,” says former City Council member Steve Pomerance, who is on the steering committee of Citizens for Boulder’s Clean Energy Future, a group supporting the municipalization of Boulder’s energy supply.
In fall 2011, voters approved ballot measures 2B and 2C. The 2B measure approves funds for exploring the possibilities of Boulder controlling its own utility and 2C authorizes the City Charter to establish language for operating and governing a Boulder municipal utility. After voters’ approved this historic ballot, an ongoing debate began among city staff and boulder residents about whether continuing a partnership with Xcel, or municipalization of the city’s energy supply, will be the best strategy for curbing the emissions intensity of Boulder’s energy supply, or the rate of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Pomerance argues that the only way to make the energy supply less carbon intensive is through municipalization. The system Pomerance envisages in the municipalized future looks dissimilar to the current Xcel Energy system and is designed around renewables instead of coal.
This system would rely on solar and wind power. And, when the wind isn’t blowing and/or the sun isn’t shining, natural gas — an energy source that is less emissions-intensive than coal – would kick in, Pomerance explains.
From an engineering standpoint, a renewable system backed by natural gas is more feasible than a renewable system backed by coal, says Paul Komor, energy education director of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, based in Boulder.
“Wind and solar and coal do not play together very well,” Komor says.
Coal is burned to make steam for powering a turbine, and steam turbines operate more effectively when held at a near-constant energy output level, Komor says. On the other hand, natural gas plants — due to their historical origins in the airline industry — were designed from the start to be flexible and easily ramped up, or down, depending on energy needs.
However, since an energy system powered mostly by renewable energy and backed by natural gas has never been implemented before, the transition would not happen immediately, Komor says.
“It’s not like overnight we would have 50 or 75 percent of our energy from wind. We would add more wind every year and I think we would be successful at it,” says Komor. “My opinion is it’s a solvable engineering problem but not a trivial one.”
While Xcel produces most of its electricity from coal, the utilities company has implemented some renewable energy initiatives and has plans to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions under the Colorado Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act. Xcel’s projected fuel mix for 2011 includes 14 percent renewables. Under the Act, Xcel is required to get 30 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020. Xcel Energy also ranked as the leading wind provider for seven years running, according to the American Wind Energy Association, and in 1998 launched its Windsource Program that allows customers in Colorado and several other states to designate all, or part, of their electricity from a renewable energy source.
Xcel has also been working with the National Center for Atmospheric Research to forecast wind energy and make decisions about powering down coal- and natural gas-fired power plants when sufficient winds are predicted. NCAR reports that its wind forecasting has helped Xcel Energy customers save several million dollars yearly.
Xcel is increasing its supply of natural gas, with current rates at about 36 percent, up from 17 percent last year, says Michelle Aguayo, spokesperson for Xcel.
“Using natural gas will allow us to be able to work with those renewable energies a lot easier,” Aguayo says.
However, coal remains the cheapest source of energy, and Xcel has invested billions of dollars in coal-fired power plants, such as the Comanche 3 power station that opened near Pueblo, Colo., in February 2010.
“At current electricity prices, it would cost a fair bit of money,” Komor says, when asked what it would take for Xcel to make the switch to a renewable-based system. “I don’t think there are many people in the state who would pay more for electricity.”
If Boulder residents decide to make the switch to a renewable-based system, they will likely have to pay more for their energy, Komor says. However, this could change if a carbon tax was passed, or solar comes down in price, he adds.
As city staff discusses the feasibility of municipalization of the city’s energy supply, Pomerance says that finances will be the big obstacle. Understanding the cost of isolating Boulder’s system from the rest of Xcel Energy’s system is still underway, but in the meantime Boulder has made some progress with renewable energy.
A Focus on Community
City initiatives, including a solar rebate program and involvement in state legislative efforts, have resulted in the installation of more than 11.3 megawatts of solar photovoltaics throughout Boulder, representing the highest per-capita installed solar capacity of any city in the U.S.
And, although CAP programs didn’t enable the city to reach the 2012 goal, they have kept Boulder’s emissions relatively stable since 2007. If trends had continued in the absence of the CAP initiative the city’s 2010 emissions could have been 4.5 percent higher than they actually were, according to city data.
As Boulder continues to research and implement the best methods for reducing energy demand and the emissions intensity of the city’s energy supply, Mertz says that city staff has realized the importance of engaging community members rather than simply delivering programs. This means creating new CAP goals that strive for a high level of community participation, rather than just objectives that focus only on emissions reductions.
“It’s really about making that shift to look at it as a community plan instead of a city plan,” Mertz says.
With this year marking the final year before the voter-approved Climate Action Plan tax expires — the nation’s first tax exclusively designated for climate change mitigation efforts — the city hopes to engage the Boulder community in the question of “what’s next?”
“There’s kind of equal community values among community goals and making sure everyone knows what they can do,” says Mertz. “Every resident, business and traveler needs to do their part in order to make meaningful reductions.”
Corrections: Updated Feb. 27 at 4:25 p.m.
*The original version of this article mistakenly referred to the Residential Energy Audit Program as “Two Techs and a Truck.” “Two Techs and a Truck” was the 2010 working title for the program ultimately implemented in 2011 as EnergySmart.
**The original version of this article stated that since the launch of EnergySmart nearly 400 Boulder residents have enrolled and over 60 percent of participating homeowners have undertaken at least one upgrade beyond the “quick installs” made available at the time of the audit. This has been updated to reflect the numbers contained in a recent City Council report on Boulder’s Energy Future.