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County introduces new energy forecasting tool to reduce footprint

“We’re looking at what is happening here, but also what we are causingelsewhere”

By Crystal Kotowski

An innovative energy forecasting tool is expected to bring new life to Gunnison County’s largely stalled Energy Action Plan, with potential to establish environmental leadership opportunities for Gunnison County, catalyze green economic growth plans, and integrate economic efficiency and environmental opportunities in the valley.

The forecasting tool utilizing global best practices will allow the county to assess its environmental impact—in Gunnison County and elsewhere—so it can look for ways to reduce its environmental footprint. It could revitalize the Energy Action Plan and even help the county identify new sources of local energy. The Gunnison County contingent of the Energy Action Plan Advisory Group, which evolved to become the Green Team, has researched and deliberated a wide range of opportunities for decreasing the county’s greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. The Green Team presented its publication, Gunnison County Carbon Policy Task Force Final Report and Recommendations, to the county in 2011.

The timing of the project is influenced by the integration of compressed natural gas (CNG) into the county’s energy grid. There are subsequently more requirements to report on CO2 offsets to the Department of Local Affairs.

“The forecasting that was previously done was done differently… this method is more accurate and holistic,” Gunnison County director of facilities and grounds John Cattles identified, introducing the tool at the Board of County Commissioners meeting on January 17.

Forecasting tool logistics: Inventory versus Footprint

Western State Colorado University professor Abel Chavez is helping Cattles spearhead the tool. Cattles noted that the Green Team’s carbon offset initiatives were mostly internal, focusing on energy efficiency in county-owned buildings, and that the initial baseline forecast accounted only for carbon inventory, not footprint.

The initial inventory accounted for the Gunnison Basin, but the footprint will cover the entirety of Gunnison County. The footprint includes out of boundary and relevant upstream activities, such as air travel, fuel refining, cement, food and water.

“We’re looking at what is happening here but also what we are causing elsewhere,” said Cattles.

The tool has adopted recently released protocols, which Chavez was a part of producing, publishing and releasing. “We’ve delineated energy use and energy sources and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions in distinct ways, again adopting global best practices. We sought out and we collected as much as possible 2015 data for this baseline to establish an energy and greenhouse gas footprint. A footprint and baseline are different,” said Chavez.

Chavez earned his Ph.D. at the University of Colorado–Denver, focusing his thesis on comparing city-scale greenhouse gas accounting methods.

Forecast findings

Cattles outlined the findings from the energy footprint, focusing first on buildings, as they are a major sector in the inventory. Buildings, particularly commercial buildings, provide an opportunity for Gunnison County to lessen its environmental footprint. Cement production is a significant producer of greenhouse gas emissions globally and is expanding exponentially, confirmed Chavez; one ton of CO2 is emitted per one ton of cement created.

The total building energy use intensity is lower in Gunnison County than in the state. We have a less energy-use-intense economy when it comes to the commercial building sector. For some of the other benchmarks, gasoline and diesel use is aligned with the state benchmarks. The landfill is in line with the state benchmark,” added Chavez.

Changing electricity use patterns can also help limit footprint. Cattles explained, “Using electricity for heat is the least efficient way to heat. Electricity use doubles in winter; if you want to hook up to natural gas, you have to pay for construction. For electricity, you just need a meter. There are things we can do to help incentivize people to utilize natural gas. Also, we need to reduce peak demand on our electricity. Peak demand causes our electricity costs to be really high. We can do things to lower peak demand—we can work with utilities and do things on our own.”

Beyond changing energy patterns, Chavez and Cattles discussed the possibilities of diversifying local energy sources. “There are things we can do to create more local, decentralized energy sources that create jobs here and reduce emissions at the same time… A lot of communities are focusing on things like combined power and heat energy stations. You create a local utility; you’re creating electricity. To up the efficiencies you’re harvesting the heat and distributing it…. It helps set the stage for renewables.“

Producing energy, reducing footprint 

Chavez outlined the next steps in developing the forecasting tools, which include communicating findings to the overall community, integrating findings into strategic planning, developing an action plan with measurable milestones, and forming intra- and inter-county collaborations to include the business community, utility providers, planners, other governments, WSCU, and the community at large.

The county commissioners focused on the feasibility of local energy initiatives they’ve been both brainstorming and developing. Commissioner Phil Chamberland noted he is working on developing the potential for hydrogen solar.  “There are some folks who have big visions who want to see it implemented in the county,” he noted.

Cattles expanded on Chamberland’s plans for renewable energy, discussing nationwide efforts to add hydrogen to the CNG mix. “There are renewables around CNG that are achievable. Hydrogen and methane capture are interesting on the transportation side,” he said.

“Whether it’s biomass or methane becoming an eligible energy source under the Colorado Renewable Energy Standard or the DMEA winning their case to buy locally produced power, it seems like a lot of the ingredients are coming together for a successful community-based recipe,” said commissioner Jonathan Houck.

In 2016, a unanimous decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission struck down a fee imposed by Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association on wholesale electric customers—such as the Delta-Montrose Electric Association—who purchase energy from renewable resources like wind, solar, hydro, or geothermal power.

Houck continued, “The areas I’ve had interest in are locally-produced power. We’ve got geothermal. The methane capture opportunity is staggering, especially when you look at how much of the statewide opportunity is centered in the Somerset area. Looking at biomass, it has some area of exploration as we deal with forest health issues. I think the other part, too, is you spoke very specifically to the county being a convener to elevate this issue. This is a regional issue.”

“I think the county is the place to lead that conversation… and really no one else will,” interjected Cattles.

“A vision I have is to embark on a regional initiative,” concluded Chavez.

The Board of County Commissioners will present more of Cattles and Chavez’s findings as discussed in the February strategic planning meeting in the coming weeks.

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