Environment Report vol1:1

Going Neutral: Telluride’s Road to Carbon Reduction

Photo by Alec Jacobson


This August, Telluride’s Town Council voted to raise the bar on climate action. In the forth paragraph of a short resolution announcing that Telluride will join 6 counties and 16 other towns around Colorado to fight global warming, a single sentence declares a target that has been years in the making: “the Town of Telluride intends to adopt a goal for the entire community of becoming carbon neutral.”

This bill came immediately on the heels of Mountainfilm Festival’s New Normal campaign that focused on battling climate change and headlined representatives from Ashton Hayes, a village in England that has famously set its sights on carbon neutrality.  But Telluride has been working to shrink its carbon footprint for nearly 15 years.

“The town government is now carbon neutral, and the Telluride community is meeting its goal to be 20 percent below 2010 levels,” said Town of Telluride Environmental and Engineering Division Manager Karen Guglielmone, who tracks municipal emissions and implements the government’s reduction efforts.

Telluride’s government has so far led the charge to reduce the community’s emissions, experimenting with a variety of programs that range from investing in renewable energy production to adopting the Green Building Code.

“I wonder if carbon neutrality is aspirational,” admitted Guglielmone. Still, “In the next few years, given what’s going on across the country with the Tesla Solar Roofs and battery technology, we’ll see great opportunity to do what we do, and to do it better.”

Guglielmone’s follows a string of recent successes that have cut Telluride’s emissions by 25%.  But it took the town years of trials and errors to find a winning strategy.

Telluride’s first stab at emissions reduction followed the same, low-tech strategy that many of us might follow in our own homes.

A 2004 report studying 2003 electrical use at municipal facilities recommended 40 cheap and relatively simple steps, including weatherizing buildings, replacing old lightbulbs, powering down computers at night, installing smart thermostats and putting a VendingMiser beverage machine in the Public Works office to replace an old machine that was responsible for “one notably large plug load.”

The report estimated that these changes would reduce energy consumption in the studied town buildings by 20-25% by 2010, noting confidently that with, “a modest dose of perseverance, [we] can achieve this target.”

In 2005, with that early certainty and some baseline emissions data, the town signed onto the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement and also agreed to support Aspen’s Canary Initiative, committing the government to reduce municipal building and operations emissions by 7% by 2012 (to match the Kyoto Protocol goal from which the US withdrew in 2001) and to invest in alternative energy sources.

But those ambitions targets didn’t generate results. In 2005, emissions rose. In 2006, emissions dropped 1% below 2004 levels which, wrote Gugliemone in memorandum summarizing the year’s energy use, “is not very terribly impressive.”

So, the government doubled down on the strategy of chasing quick and cheap changes, initiating a community outreach program, Telluride Unplugged, that included lectures, a series of articles in the newspaper, and an ongoing awareness program emphasizing energy efficient lighting, local food, recycling and transportation. This was designed as an “annual, local information ‘fest,’” that would help to “[train] ourselves to think differently throughout 2007 so that the new thought patterns will stay with us into the future.”

The same plan that outlined Unplugged also called for a more ambitious emissions goal, setting the Town’s sights on dropping its emissions 15% by 2010 and another 15% by 2015. And the town also included reducing emissions in the 2006 Master Plan.

Nonetheless, emissions remained above baseline levels as the town increased its staff and services alongside Telluride’s growing population and tourist visits. “Six (6) years of analysis and implementation of efficiency measures indicate that the Town Government is not likely to meet these goals with current programs,” noted a 2009 memorandum. As a result, staff recommended that, “the Council take this opportunity to regroup and reassess the town’s strategy.”

The same year, Telluride adopted a new goal, aligning with a target set by Colorado’s Governor, Bill Ritter, to reduce community-wide emissions by 20% by 2020 with the hope that it would be useful to be on the same track as other communities around the state.

EcoAction Partners then led the charge to expand the baseline emissions data beyond municipal facilities and services emissions, surveying the greenhouse gas emissions of the Telluride community as a whole, as well as the surrounding population of San Miguel and Ouray Counties.

The largest portion of Telluride’s emissions come from the electricity and natural gas needed to power and heat homes and commercial buildings. The Town had spent years targeting efficiency within those structures, but, after 2009, they expanded their vision and started to move upstream to target the efficiency of the energy supply chain.

Telluride mayor Stu Fraser joined with his Mountain Village counterpart, Bob Delves, to pose an informal “mayoral challenge” to their respective communities to derive 100 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020.

The town installed solar panels on the roof of the wastewater treatment plant, funding the facility through a San Miguel Power Association (SMPA) rebate program.  When the solar array came online in 2011, it generated 184 megawatt hours of electricity. SMPA owns the offset credits associated with the project, so they do not count to reduce Telluride’s total emissions.

The town then started to target other renewable energy projects, seeking to purchase more solar panels and to implement a hydro power project at the historic Bridal Veil power plant.

The 2012 Energy Use and Carbon Footprint Summary proudly announces that the government facilities and services are “halfway to our 2020 goal.”

But then, in 2014, the Town entered into an agreement to purchase renewable energy credits (RECs) from a new hydro facility down the road in Ridgway and, suddenly, Telluride was ahead of the curve.

RECs are a means of subsidizing the production of electricity from renewable energy sources. In the case of the Ridgway hydro plant, Telluride pays $1.38 for ever approximately 1,100 kilowatt hours of energy produced, offsetting one metric ton of carbon that would have been produced by a nonrenewable source.

And this has significantly altered Telluride’s carbon accounting. In 2010, the community emitted 86,800 metric tons of carbon dioxide, while 2016’s emissions have been calculated at 65,400 mtCO2; a 21,400 mtCO2, 25% reduction. Last year, the Ridgway hydro plant produced 14,684,700 kWh of electricity, and Telluride paid $18,355.88 for 13,255 mtCO2 credits. That is to say that 62% of Telluride’s success at reducing its carbon footprint comes from that one purchase each year.

Telluride’s other renewable energy investments – the solar on the wastewater treatment plant and the credits from the Bridal Veil hydro plant – account for another 264 mtCO2 of reductions in the town’s carbon accounting.

The exact calculus of how a REC purchase offsets emissions versus justifying greater emissions can raise some eyebrows. However, Guglielmone pointed out that without the town’s demand for RECs, certain local renewable energy projects would not have been built in the first place.

“The Town of Telluride only buys local RECs,” she said. “The RECs we are buying from Bridal Veil are electrons that never make it out of Telluride. My thesis is that because they are local RECs, they matter. They’re real.”

Being local, they have a bigger impact on Telluride’s footprint than just the giant reduction from the credits. The projects supported by these RECs have contributed to the trend of growing renewable electricity across Tri-State Generation and Trasmission’s operations that supply Telluride. This has lowered the carbon emissions of each electron of energy that enters the valley. Since 2010, the blend of electricity that Telluride purchases become almost 12% less carbon emitting.

Greening of the system accounts for an additional 21% of the community’s emissions reductions. This paints a clear picture that, as Telluride targets carbon neutrality, growing the network of renewable energy options will be a key strategy.

According to data produced by EcoAction Partners, the carbon footprint of the surrounding region has stayed nearly flat (their report from 2017 shows an increase of 1% against the baseline emissions in 2010). According to Kim Wheels, their Energy Programs Coordinator who tracks emissions, the report from Telluride – given its rising population and growing tourist visits – would likely look similar if the community had not started to build renewable energy sources and to purchase RECs.

“I think that [carbon neutrality] is very realistic if the Town of Telluride is willing to look at a combination of solutions,” says Brad Zaporski, chief executive at the local power coop, San Miguel Power Association. “The combination of solutions would have to include net metering, community style [electricity] generation, utility style [electricity] generation, offsets, and, most importantly, efficiency and conservation.”

Telluride’s government is prepared to continue to lead the charge to reduce the community’s emissions. But, Karen Gugliemone cautions, the entire community will have to participate if there is any hope of reaching carbon neutrality, particularly if there is any hope of reaching that goal before it is too late.

The Global Carbon Project released their 2017 report this month with an unsettling fact: after three years of flat emissions that many thought to signal a peak, global emissions are poised to hit a new record high this year.

Everyone in Telluride, says Gugliemone, will have to do their part to stem the tide.



Correction: the original edition of this article published on November 28, 2017 mistakenly noted that the Town of Telluride brought researchers from University of Colorado at Denver to expand the baseline municipal greenhouse gas emissions survey to the surrounding community.  EcoAction Partners actually did the research for the expansion and the University of Colorado’s Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Systems then prepared the report.

By Alec Jacobson

Alec Jacobson is the Executive Director of the Mountain Independent. He is also a National Geographic Young Explorer, and has worked around the world as a photographer and writer focusing on slow moving stories.