Summit County ranks high as a greenhouse gas emitter in Colorado. Here’s what’s being done about it.
Locally-funded subsidy programs for electrification efforts will remain a key tool for reining in emissions, climate advocates say
Compared to other mountain resort communities, Summit County ranks among the highest for per-person greenhouse gas emissions, according to an analysis by the High Country Conservation Center, a county-based nonprofit.
During a Tuesday, Sept. 19, Summit Board of County Commissioners meeting, nonprofit leaders told county officials that continued action to rein in emissions is needed to avoid dire environmental and economic ramifications in the future.
“We know that as climate continues to impact Colorado, in Summit County we’re going to see increasing temperatures, shorter winters as a result (and) potential impacts to our winter recreation economies,” said Jess Hoover, the center’s climate action director.
Hoover compared the most recent emissions studies conducted in 10 Colorado communities, including Summit County, to see how the county stacks up. Data was pulled from the towns of Vail and Crested Butte, the cities of Aspen, Steamboat Springs and Boulder as well as the counties of Routt, Eagle, Boulder, Denver and Summit.
The county ranked as the third highest for greenhouse gas emissions per person among the 10 areas, according to Hoover. She also found Summit County exceeded the state average, with 27 metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per person in 2020 compared to 21.9 at the state level in 2019.
Carbon dioxide equivalent is a standardized form of measuring emissions and represents the emissions of all greenhouse gasses in terms of the equivalent measurement of carbon dioxide.
Summit County’s high emission rate could largely be attributed to its high visitation numbers, according to Hoover, who, in an interview with the Summit Daily News after the meeting, said, “We cannot separate the impact of our visitor population on our emissions.”
“(Summit County) is not like another rural community that has a population of 30,000 and no tourism draw,” she said.
Still, it is incumbent on county residents to be a part of emission-reducing solutions, Hoover said. Those include taking advantage of the myriad of subsidy programs the conservation center offers.
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Most of those initiatives are aimed at home electrification, with county homeowners who earn between 80% and 160% of the area median income eligible for thousands in rebates for heat pumps, electric appliances and solar installations.
The largest sector for emissions in the county is commercial and residential buildings, which, when combined, account for 62% of all emissions, according to 2020 data. Electricity represents the single largest emission source, accounting for 33%, followed by 29% from natural gas.
“We cannot make natural gas cleaner,” Hoover said. “It is a fossil fuel, and when we burn it, it creates emissions.”
It’s why climate leaders are putting an emphasis on electrification efforts, Hoover said.
“Electricity is the solution because we can have renewable-generated electricity,” she said. “This is what folks across climate action are talking about. A rather straightforward solution, but it’s easier said than done.”
Yet, the conservation center is seeing progress.
For example, its Solarize Summit initiative, which provides up to $1,950 in rebates for solar panels for certain homeowners, has seen over 260 households served since it launched in 2019. That translates to nearly 2 megawatts of clean electricity, equivalent to removing more than 200 gas-powered cars from the road every year.
The program is funded with help from the Breckenridge and Frisco governments as well as the county. The efforts will be crucial for keeping the county on track for hitting its goal of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050 relative to a 2005 baseline, as outlined in the county’s climate action plan, Hoover said.
“If we don’t do anything, temperatures in Summit County will be more like Eagle County by 2050 which, as you all might know, are substantially warmer,” Hoover said.
A 2020 analysis of the county’s emissions landscape projected that if climate change continues unabated, most of the county is predicted to have a 2 degree Celsius increase, or a 3.6 degree Fahrenheit increase, in average annual temperature by 2050.
The fingerprints of climate change could be seen across the central mountain region and Western Slope this summer, with record-breaking temperatures amid the hottest July on record worldwide.
As temperatures rise, so does the threat to water security.
Rachel Zerowin, the conservation center’s community programs director, said the impact of drought on the Colorado River, which currently serves around 40 million people, will be felt not just by downstream communities.
“If you eat vegetables in the wintertime in Summit County, it’s irrigated by the Colorado River, out in California most likely,” Zerowin said.
Demand in the Blue River Basin, a watershed that includes all of Summit County, is expected to outpace supply by 2050, Zerowin added.
To promote water conservation at the local level, the conservation center is launching landscaping training events and conducting water-use assessments. To further that goal, Zerowin said the county should implement a unified irrigation schedule, which county officials recently discussed and voiced support for.
“Right now, different water providers and different towns have various schedules of when folks are allowed to water or not,” Zerowin said, adding she hopes a universal schedule could be rolled out in 2024.
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