Aspen hoping to lead the way in difficult climb to a cooler climate

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Who is Allen Best and Big Pivots?

Allen Best is a Colorado journalist with many years of experience following energy policy and politics. He publishes his own free e-journal at He has written these pieces of analysis for Empowering Colorado.

Aspen got national attention in 2004 when it launched a program called the Canary Initiative that aimed for greenhouse gas reduction. This summer, a time of smoky skies and heat in the mountain resort that at one point surpassed temperatures in sub-tropical Florida, city officials have decided those original goals fell short of what is needed.

They want to pick up the pace. Reducing emissions can’t wait.

“We don’t have any fires right here right now, but the impact of fires across the West, the drought, the rising temperatures that everyone is suffering from—these provide very tangible examples of what we can expect to see a lot more of if we don’t take some very significant and aggressive actions,” said CJ Oliver, the city’s director of environmental health and sustainability.

Other communities in Colorado have similarly acknowledged the urgency for transformation. Eagle, also a mountain community, has adopted new carbon reduction goals. Denver continues its efforts to shave natural gas from buildings.

Aspen’s original goals were to reduce emissions 30% by 2030. That goal falls short of what scientists, with increasing alarm, have said will be necessary to keep global warming short of disastrous consequences.

Aspen is not the world, of course, but it does like to think of itself as a leader. There’s a sense of noblesse oblige premised on the community’s specialness. Barely a month goes by that one of its well-heeled visitors is not mentioned in the national and international news.

In early July, for example, Jeff Bezos emerged from outer space wearing a cowboy hat that he purchased a half-dozen years ago at an Aspen millinery. And two of the three agents of the United Arab Emirates who were trying to influence former President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy had Aspen connections.

Aspen has slashed emissions: Between 2004 and 2017, taxable sales in the city grew 38%, population rose 8%, and yet the city’s greenhouse gas emissions had dropped 20%. But it knows it needs to do more.

Reducing the carbon intensity delivered by the city’s two electrical utilities has helped. Aspen Electric, the municipal utility, achieved a 100% carbon-free portfolio in 2015, while Holy Cross Energy is no at 40%, with ambitions to hit 100% by the decade’s end.

Transforming the electricity sector isn’t enough in Aspen nor across Colorado. Transportation has surpassed electrical generation as the leading source of emissions in Colorado. Other sectors, including buildings, oil and gas, industry and agriculture, all havetheir particular challenges.

Aspen can likely do little about air transportation, which causes 5% of Aspen’s emissions as of 2017, according to the city’s accounting. Instead, Aspen plans to wrestle with those sectors over which it has more control. Landfill emissions cause 9% of the city’s emissions. Sustainability staff believes the waste stream of construction materials and organic matter, primarily food trimmings from Aspen’s 100 eateries, can be diverted, with the added benefit of lengthening the life of the existing landfill beyond the current two or three years.

In this, state legislation may boost efforts. State Rep. Kevin Priola, a Republican from Adams County, has indicated he wants to find ways to boost recycling and composting in Colorado.

Aspen also sees gains in vehicle electrification. It plans to electrify its cars and trucks, first the light vehicles, then those of medium to heavy duty..

In this, the city will be along for the ride of state and federal policies intended to spur vehicle electrification. Colorado and now the federal government hope 50% of vehicle sales by 2030 will be electric. Will Toor, chief executive of the Colorado Energy Office, last week told members of the General Assembly’s Transportation Legislation Review Committee that 6% of all vehicle sales in the first quarter of 2020 were electric, more than expected.

Replacing fossil fuel with electricity in buildings will provide another area where emissions can be reduced as electricity is increasingly rid of its carbon taint. Again, this is easier done with new buildings than retrofitting existing buildings.

Building electrification, says Oliver, the city’s sustainability director, is a long-term goal.

“We’re not going to electrify Aspen in the next five years,” he said. “I think it’s a 50-year project.”

In metro Denver, suburban communities have started thinking in that same, long-term way about building emissions. A real estate project in Arvada called Geos that has achieved net-zero emissions has drawn delegations from Golden and Broomfield inquisitive about what it will take to transition buildings from fossil fuels.

Eagle in July also set ambitious goals, ones best described as aspirational. Town council members in late July set a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the town government’s internal operations by 2028 and in the greater Eagle community by 2030.

These goals are contained in a resolution, passed unanimously. But the Vail Daily, in reporting on the council meeting, says several council members expressed doubts the town could achieve those goals.

Colorado legislators adopted economy-wide goals of 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. The state’s greenhouse gas reduction roadmap that was released in January does provide more direction, as do dozens of new laws this year. Among them is a new tool, the social cost of methane, to be used in regulatory evaluations.

Still, some doubt the utility of such goal-setting. State Sen. Dan Coram, a Republican from Montrose, questions why you set goals that you know you can’t meet. He says he favors legislation that emphasizes practical solutions.

Environmental advocates see the future differently. They believe if goals are set, then the way we will be found to meet those goals. And Colorado 2019 legislation specifies that the emissions-reduction goals are more than aspirational.

This summer’s sallow skies and those of 2020, the result of wildfires made more likely by climbing temperatures, also tell us the goals cannot be optional.

Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine covering the energy transition in Colorado and beyond.

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