Climate Action Plan continues progress in Crested Butte

Pursuing grants and a possible major solar farm

by Mark Reaman

In an effort to tighten up town-owned buildings as part of the Climate Action Plan (CAP), the Crested Butte Town Council gave the go-ahead to staff to apply for about $375,000 in state Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) grants to be used for that purpose.

During an August 4 work session, staff presented potential paths to take to try to meet goals of the CAP and reported on preliminary results of an energy audit performed by an outside consultant on 23 town-owned sites. 

The most comprehensive path forward would entail spending about $2.4 million on everything from installing solar panels on roofs to replacing lighting and heating equipment with new energy-efficient equipment, to doing better weather stripping. That major effort is estimated to save about $62,500 per year, or 35 percent of the town’s annual utility costs. It would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions in town by 460.5 metric tons, which is a 44 percent GHG emissions reduction from the town’s baseline. 

In order to achieve a 20-year payback period, the town would need to subsidize the project upfront to the tune of $1.3 million.

A scaled-back path focused on lighting, the tightening up of building envelopes, adding fewer rooftop solar panels and replacing outdated mechanical equipment would cost closer to $915,000 and could save the town about $35,736 per year in utility costs, or 20 percent of annual costs. 

It would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 234.6 metric tons, a 22 percent reduction in GHG emissions. To obtain a 15-year payback, the initial subsidy would be $373,000. That is what the town will ask the DOLA to pick up. 

Town planner Mel Yemma wanted to know if council felt it worthwhile pursuing the scaled-back plan.

“Is equipment like the solar panels going to be adequate over 15 or 20 years?” asked council member Mallika Magner. “How fast is technology changing?”

Yemma said that while solar technology is changing rapidly, the scaled-back plan was a good compromise, especially since some of the work and equipment replacement would be needed anyway.

Town manager Dara MacDonald said the town hopes to get all of the subsidy covered by DOLA grants, but admitted those grants were becoming very competitive.

“What’s the downside?” asked Magner.

“You are taking on a debt obligation and that is always something to strongly consider,” said MacDonald. “The staff is most comfortable with the scaled-back scenario. It is a very pragmatic solution with the downside of taking on debt but making good strides toward your Climate Action Plan goals.”

The council gave the thumbs-up to have the staff begin preparing the application for the DOLA grant for $373,000.

Avalanche Park solar farm?

The Town Council also approved moving ahead with a potential partnership with the Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA) to place a major solar farm on the Avalanche Park property, located south of town by the Baxter Gulch trailhead. Yemma said the site had some drawbacks but plenty of benefits as a place to locate an array of solar panels that could generate two megawatts of energy per year. The town of Crested Butte uses about one megawatt of electricity annually. 

“It is adjacent to the GCEA substation, which is a big plus,” Yemma explained. “It is screened from the highway and could be annexed to town. Snow loading and shading in the winter could reduce efficiency by about 7 percent. Avalanche hazard could be mitigated and there might be the need to do a minor trail reroute.”

MacDonald said the GCEA is analyzing about a half dozen other sites in the county where a solar farm could be productive, and Avalanche Park was one of them. “There are pluses and minuses to each of the spots,” she said. “But GCEA is looking very hard at how to provide locally generated power.”

“I’m a little sentimental about the idea of using that spot as a campground but this idea could make some sense,” said council member Laura Mitchell. “I support the solar idea but will miss the campground.”

“I agree with Laura but this is a little more pressing in the long run,” said council member Will Dujardin.

“Keep in mind, these things are not necessarily forever,” noted MacDonald. “Solar panels typically have a 20-year lease.”

Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt suggested town citizens could see some direct benefit from GCEA if that site is chosen, perhaps a reduction in part of the monthly electric bill.

Overall, the council agreed with the idea of working with GCEA to evaluate Avalanche Park as the future home of a solar farm.

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