Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Carbon Conundrum: Part 1

Tip of the iceberg

How’s this for a New Year’s Resolution? “I will cut down on my carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.” Sounds easy enough, right? But what will you give up? Heat? Hot laps at the ski area? Snowmo rides to the Anthracites? Doubt it…





More often than not, the carbon-emissions conversation in our mountain valley goes like this: We love the environment and all that it provides for us, from recreational opportunities to jaw-dropping views; but our mountain lifestyle and tourism driven economy is highly energy dependent, which is a conundrum because while we want to preserve the health of the planet there’s no way we’re going to cluster together in a temperate urban environment to cut down on carbon. The bottom line is, people aren’t fleeing the Gunnison Valley in droves to save the planet. Not the greenest of our local environmentalists, nor the gas guzzling motorheads, or anybody falling in between.
So here we are, at or near the end of the road, living the good life above 8,000 feet. It’s winter with downright frigid temps on the horizon for late this week on into the weekend. Combat the cold with CO2 power. Plug your car in. Fire up the woodstove. Crank the heat. Run some laps at the ski area; the steeps are open and riding great. Get comfortable, enjoy yourself, and know that all these actions are spewing CO2 into the atmosphere that is in some way or another impacting the future climate of this planet. Like I said, a conundrum.
Fortunately the overwhelming scope of the issue hasn’t paralyzed everyone into an “I’ll get mine, forget the rest” mentality. County-wide efforts at CO2 emissions reductions are under way, from intergovernmental agreements to Energy Action Plans to grassroots measures. There is a global effort to reduce CO2 emissions 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and the Gunnison Valley governments have signed on.
Reaching that goal is a monumental task, and like everything, the more funding available the more likely that goal can be reached. When asked what it will take, Office for Resource Efficiency (ORE) Community Energy Coordinator Maya Silver says, “The answer is that it will take a lot—not just good intentions and a few tubes of caulk, but widespread, continuous, well-funded efforts to curb energy usage. The problem with reaching the 20×20 target boils down to funding. While many of the necessary initiatives are ultimately money savers, they do require upfront capital to plan and implement. If money grew on aspen trees, we could pay for energy upgrades and a PV array for every willing property in the valley, we could create viable incentives for the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles, we could fund large-scale renewable energy projects and more. The tighter our budgets and economy, the less chance we’ll have of meeting the 20×20 goal.”
Western State College Business Professor Roger Hudson and one of his quantitative analysis classes took an in-depth look at the 20×20 goal from a local perspective. Hudson explains, “About a year ago I read an analysis of the likelihood specific countries can meet their CO2 targets and found the methodology interesting and pretty easy for a non-expert to grasp. When our local governments adopted emissions targets, I was curious to see if my students and I could apply the methodology to Gunnison. We were fortunate that a group of volunteers had recently completed a green house gas inventory that provided a good starting point. Like most projects, this one expanded as time passed and we were about half done with the analysis by the end of the semester. I spent several weeks early last summer finishing it.”
Hudson published a paper on his findings, and his analysis leads him to write, “Gunnison Community’s 20 percent by 2020 emission target is consistent with those adopted through international treaties and national and state policies, not to mention its adoption by perhaps thousands of communities across the USA, yet it appears highly likely that the target can not be met in the Gunnison Community, and one wonders if 20 percent by 2020 targets can be met by any community without accounting gimmicks.”
Hudson does go on to mention two potential projects that could make the goal realistic from his point of view—hydroelectric power generation from Taylor Dam, and geothermal energy production from outside Gunnison. We’ll have more on this in Part 2 of the Carbon Conundrum series.
The towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte have signed on to Energy Action Plans that include the 20×20 reductions as a goal. Phillip Supino, town of Crested Butte Building Administrative Assistant says, “I think Roger’s paper is a productive contribution to our efforts valley-wide. He provided research and data on a broad swath of related topics that will inform Town and County-wide efforts going forward. It is important to remember that his thesis was about Gunnison County as a whole, not just the Town, and there was a lot more to it than his conclusion that the reduction targets are unrealistic.
“His quantitative analysis will be very helpful to policy development, as it will help me prioritize and make more informed policy and program decisions,” Supino continues. “The metrics he used to draw his conclusions will be very helpful in measuring our progress and program effectiveness for years to come. Like any scientific or analytical thesis, it is based on a number of assumptions, which may or may not turn out to be correct. I am not expert enough to know one way or another. I do know that it was a great addition to the dialogue and it will inform policy development going forward.”
Supino adds, “I think the town can meet its target with a concerted effort and changes at the state and federal level with regard to energy policy and funding opportunities. The Town and ORE have initiated a program to improve the efficiency of existing buildings in Town (which represent 70 percent of the Town’s total emissions). If in the next 10 years, that program expands and improves building efficiency for residential and commercial buildings, we will have made tremendous progress toward meeting the target. If at the same time, we can expand local renewable energy production through the installation of a community solar farm, we will be very close to the target. Also, as residents learn more about efficiency and how to incorporate more sustainable living practices into their lives, we will see an exponential improvement in individuals’ consumption of energy resources.”
Mt. Crested Butte’s Community Development Administrative Assistant Theresa Henry is the point person for the town’s Energy Action Plan, and like Silver, she says funding is paramount in reaching the 20×20 goal. “A few years ago, we started out strong and offered education and rebates to residents for insulation upgrades, solar domestic hot water and heat and energy ratings on new homes. I do think it [20×20] will be difficult to achieve, especially with the state of the economy and the town’s budget cuts. The town continues to cut back on funding Energy Action Planning and implementation, including its contribution to ORE. As a result of the town just trying to keep its head above water these days, our sustainability measures have not been given priority by Mt. Crested Butte decision makers and the community as a whole. In order for the town to implement things like hydropower and geothermal energy production, we would need to not only have more participation, but we would need to have funding. There are grant opportunities, but the town does not have the required match contributions.”
It all comes back to money, funding to fuel the transformation to a carbon-smart society. Changing mindsets will help, but dollars drive the development of clean energy technologies and put into action clean energy policies. This, as they say, is just the tip of the iceberg. Much more to come as this multi-part series explores the culture of carbon and our energy future in the valley.

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