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County works to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions

Goal: Reduce energy by 10 percent annually and greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent vs 2005 levels

By Kristy Acuff

In an era when everything we read about climate change seems disheartening and can be overwhelming, it’s refreshing when something inspires hope. John Cattles, sustainable operations director for Gunnison County, is a catalyst for change, working with county staff and the Board of County Commissioners to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and energy consumption among residential and commercial buildings as well as surface transportation across the county. Cattles is working to implement goals set by the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners that include reducing energy use in county buildings by 10 percent annually and reducing GHG emissions countywide by 20 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030.

“I started work with the county in 2013 as the facilities director and have always had an interest in sustainability and alternative energy, so as opportunities came up to work on initiatives or projects in those veins, I volunteered to help and was given more and more autonomy and leadership over time,” writes Cattles via email. “My title changed to sustainable operations director in 2017 in order to reflect the fact that sustainability had become a core focus of my workload, together with my other job duties.”

Cattles works closely with Dr. Able Chavez, assistant professor of environment and sustainability at Western State Colorado University, to determine the county’s emissions data and also forecast future emissions based on expected population growth, coupled with more energy-smart building codes.

“I worked with Dr. Chavez to identify strategies to achieve the 20 percent GHG reduction goal,” writes Cattles. “It was immediately apparent that buildings were the low-hanging fruit and as I dug further and came up with an average energy utilized per square foot, I compared those numbers with other communities in similar climate zones and found our buildings and homes, on average, use 30 percent more energy than others in the same climate zone.”

To achieve the 10 percent energy reduction last year, the county retrofitted the Family Services Building in Gunnison with an extensive energy update as part of a planned remodel. Part of the renovation included the installation of a ground source heat pump (GSHP) system to take advantage of the heat of the earth from 300 feet deep underground.

“We drilled several holes almost 300 feet into the ground and we pump water through pipes in those holes. It is a closed system; the water just goes down and back up and along the way either rejects heat or absorbs it from the earth, depending on whether we are in heating or cooling season,” writes Cattles. “The water from the ground is typically 52 degrees and our heat pumps can harvest heat out of that and deliver 90-plus degree air to a room. The water then returns to the ground cooler and absorbs heat from the earth and comes back up again to repeat the cycle. The process can be reversed in cooling mode. GSHP systems can be up to 400 percent efficient, meaning for every one unit of electricity we use pumping water or running heat pump compressors we can get four units of heat energy out. They work great in commercial buildings that have very consistent and large loads.”

Cattles anticipates he will measure an energy reduction at the building, which was originally constructed in 1955. The county courthouse also utilizes a GSHP system and uses one-third the energy of the previous courthouse as a result, according to Cattles.

With the goal to reduce energy use in county buildings by 10 percent annually, Cattles and other county staffers propose new projects each year to Matthew Birnie, county manager, who then analyzes their financial impact to the county budget before presenting proposals to the Board of County Commissioners for approval. Next year, Cattles is considering proposing a photo-voltaic system for the courthouse roof or retrofitting the HVAC system at the Blackstock building as a way to reach the 10 percent energy reduction. “The board and county manager will receive more suggestions and requests for capital expenditures from staff than there are resources to fulfill, so they will have to set priorities and make hard decisions,” writes Cattles.

In addition to reducing energy use in county buildings, Cattles is also overseeing the county’s transition from gasoline and diesel to compressed natural gas to power its trucks and buses. According to Dr. Chavez’s “wells to wheels” analysis, light trucks using compressed natural gas (CNG) emit 15 percent less greenhouse gases than trucks using gasoline, and the RTA bus using CNG emits 48 percent less throughout the fuel life cycle.

The impact of the CNG bus is considerably greater because it is fueled in part with renewable natural gas (RNG), which is methane that is captured off of an outside source like a landfill or feed lot waste and then pumped into the natural gas pipeline. If that methane were not captured, it would vent directly to the atmosphere as a potent greenhouse gas.

Currently, the county has 11 CNG vehicles on the ground, including one RTA bus, and has received grant funding to purchase five more light CNG trucks in 2018. In addition, the county has a 10-year fuel agreement from its CNG supplier, which is approximately $0.82 per gallon less than current diesel prices.

The third tier of the county’s efforts to reduce energy and GHG emissions is to help homeowners in the valley retrofit aging homes to be safer and more energy-efficient through the GVHEAT program, administered by the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority (GVRHA).

Anyone can request to have a home tested in an energy audit that includes a blower door test and infrared scan. Assessors also inspect the furnace, all insulation, air sealing and storm windows. The assessment generally takes 90 minutes to two hours.

For qualifying households, the assessments are free; for non–income-qualified households, Atmos energy will pay $150 toward the $300 cost of an assessment. Following the audit, energy assessors recommend renovations to improve energy efficiency and point homeowners in the direction of low-interest loans or rebates that might be available, depending on their income.

According to GVRH director Jennifer Kermode, the program reached 31 households since its inception in December 2017. “Insulation and air sealing seem to be the most common needs,” according to Kermode. “But we’ve also assisted with loans to put on new roofs and replace failing water heaters and furnaces.”

For commercial buildings, the county offers a program called CoPACE, a low-interest loan that follows the property and is assessed with property taxes. Commercial owners can use the loan to retrofit buildings for higher energy efficiency.

For more information about GVHEAT, go to http://gvrha.org/gv-heat.

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