On Feb. 13 the Wall Street Journal ran a front page article criticizing the efforts of communities in Boulder County, Colorado to increase energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, and build a green economy. The article included numerous cherry-picked negative quotes, but very little factual analysis on the impacts of these programs .
The truth is, our local clean energy efforts have had significant accomplishments. Since the program began in March 2009, the new ClimateSmart Loan Program has lent nearly $10 million in private bond sale investments to 612 homeowners to improve their homes’ energy efficiency and install solar systems. Approximately 1/3 of this went to solar energy, the other two thirds to energy efficiency improvements. More than 280 local independent contractors have received work from this program, producing jobs and keeping many vendors in business .The program is continuing to expand – we receive numerous calls from homeowners wanting to participate in the next round of loans. This program does not rely on tax dollars – instead it use property assessments to back bonds for clean energy improvements, and has begun one of a handful of national models for such programs. Already, three other counties in Colorado have followed suit.
Boulder, Boulder County, Superior and Longmont have all adopted residential green building codes, assuring that new homes and major remodels of existing homes are far more energy efficient than the national norm. Boulder County’s code requires modestly sized new homes to use 40% less energy than typical new homes, and requires larger homes to be even more efficient, so that their net impact is not greater than small homes. All these jurisdictions have collaboratively created a model commercial green building code which would set the bar at 30% more energy efficiency than national codes, and Boulder has already adopted this standard. Over time, these codes will have a huge impact on energy use .
In the last few years, our residents have increased their annual investment in new solar panels by a factor of 10 – making solar generation an important component of our local electricity mix. Local governments have aggressively pursued power purchase agreements that allow them to add largescale solar to public buildings at no net cost. Boulder County alone has installed nearly a megawatt of solar PV on 10 county buildings in the past two years.
Here are responses to some of the specific claims by the Wall Street Journal :
WSJ claim: “Since 2006, Boulder has subsidized about 750 home energy audits. Even after the subsidy, the audits cost each homeowner up to $200, so only the most committed signed up. Still, follow-up surveys found half didn't implement even the simplest recommendations, despite incentives such as discounts on energy-efficient bulbs and rebates for attic insulation.”
Here are the actual facts: The Residential Energy Action Program, a joint program of Boulder, Boulder County, and other municipalities in the county, which provides energy audits and energy counseling, has attracted more than 2,000 participants. Phone surveys have indicated that 85% of participants follow up with action. The most common improvement is added insulation, followed by installaing energy efficient furnaces, eand nergy efficient hot water heaters. On average, an audit participant spends $8,724 on energy improvements, resulting in a $44 return on investment for every $1 spent by local government.
WSJ statement: "We still have a long way to go," says Paul Sheldon, a consultant who advises the city on conservation. Residents "should be driving high-efficiency vehicles, and they're not. They should be carpooling, and they're not."
The implication is that local efforts to improve transportation sustainability are a failure. This is demonstrable false. Unlike the climate action plans, which are very recent, the City of Boulder has had a sustainable transportation plan since 1995, and has been carefully tracking the results.
Boulder’s efforts have focused on switching investment from roadway expansion to public transit and high quality bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, creating financial incentives for transit use, and supporting higher density mixed use development in the core of the community. This work has paid off. According to US Census Bureau surveys, Boulder residents have cut back their driving by nearly 20% since 2000. Compared to the national average, Boulder residents bike 18 times more, walk 3 times more, and use transit twice as much. Boulder set a goal of capping vehicles miles travelled in the Boulder Valley at 1994 levels. The data from 2008 (the most recent year data are available for is ) show that this goal has been met – there has been no increase in miles travelled within Boulder, despite a thriving, growing local economy. Without these policies we would have expected a 60% increase. This alone represents a significant accomplishment in avoiding GHG emissions growth. While there are clearly large transportation challenges facing boulder – how to develop additional regional public transit and how to house more employees within Boulder to reduce commuting being the biggest – it is just incorrect to imply that Boulder’s transportation efforts have been a failure.
Wall Street Journal claim: “By the end of 2008, emissions here were 27% higher than 1990 levels. That's a worse showing than the U.S. as a whole, where emissions rose 15% during that period, according to the Department of Energy.”
While this is true, it needs some context. At the global scale, total emissions are what count. But, if what we are trying to do is judge the success of local efforts, we need to normalize the emissions. Boulder went through a huge boom in employment and commercial construction. And commercial energy use is the largest source of GHG emissions in Boulder. These emissions came not necessarily from higher per capita emissions, but simply from more activity happening in Boulder rather than somewhere else.
Wall Street Journal quote: "If a place like Boulder that regards itself as being in the environmental forefront has such a tough time, these types of efforts are not going to work as a core policy" for the nation, says Roger Pielke Jr., who studies the political response to climate change at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Local efforts to reduce GHG emissions have just begun. The carbon tax was not passed until 2006, and most of the programs have only been started in the last two years. The most successful countywide program to date, the Climate Smart Loan Program, just began in March of 2009. There simply has not been the time to measure the overall impact of Boulder’s carbon reduction efforts . The built infrastructure can’t be changed overnight. But what are seeing are some encouraging signs. The data indicate that emissions seem to be trending downwards, as opposed to historical growth rates of several percent per year. This is too recent to be sure that it is really a long term trend – but certainly does not support the conclusion that these efforts are a failure.
Boulder County and it’s municipalities cannot go it alone. Many of the largest drivers of GHG emissions are regulated at the state and national level. The state government regulates the generation of electricity – one of the largest sources of GHG emissions. Luckily, our Governor, Bill Ritter, has been a tireless champion of the new energy economy. Under his leadership the state has adopted legislation requiring that 20% of our electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2020, and is considering legislation this spring to raise the standard to 30%. There is a real opportunity to couple this with coal plant retirements and additional use of lower carbon natural gas as an interim strategy to achieve deep reductions in GHG emissions – and huge benefits for public health locally.
The federal government regulates automobile fuel efficiency standards, controls much of the investment in transportation infrastructure, and is probably the only effective level at which a carbon tax or cap and trade system can be implemented. Local governments like ours can make a big difference in certain sectors, such as building energy efficiency, and are a hugely important place for policy innovation, but ultimately we can only achieve a large-scale transformation of our energy systems through a partnership between state, federal, and local government, in cooperation with the private sector.
Far from a cautionary tale, the Boulder area provides a model for how well crafted government policies for clean energy and sustainable transportation can spur green jobs, a high quality of life, and lower carbon emissions. It is time for the federal government to enact comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation so that the entire country can realize these benefits.
22 February 2010
Will Toor on Boulder's Emisisons Reductions
Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor has responded to a recent article in the WSJ which suggested that the emissions reductions policies in Boulder were falling short of their objectives. I disagree with Will's views about the potential for Boulder to reduce its emissions in any meaningful way. However, Will is smart and thoughtful and his views are always worth hearing. Here is his response (from the comments to an article by Tom Yulsman):