Advocates say fossil fuel choice for city construction opposes Climate Action Plan

The fuel choice for heating and cooling at the new city hall and fire station is a subject of some controversy. Construction starting with asbestos removal and demolition of the current city hall is set to start May 1, 2023.
City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy photo

In one of the first significant “where the rubber meets the road” discussions after all the municipalities and county leaders adopted the Routt County Climate Action Plan by August 2021, environmental advocates say Steamboat Springs City Council made a decision in October that opposes the approved plan.

After a lively discussion during the Oct. 11 City Council regular meeting, councilors took a “straw poll” to direct Deputy City Manager Tom Leeson to drop geothermal renewable energy as an option in the current design process for the new City Hall and Fire Station complex.

Some local environmental advocates are irked with that decision.

“Are we serious about climate action, or aren’t we, is really what this is going to boil down to,” said Paul Bony, energy and transportation director for nonprofit Yampa Valley Sustainability Council.

“The city has a once-in-a-generational opportunity to use federal and state funding to do exactly what the CAP says, and they should not turn their back on that opportunity,” YVSC Executive Director Michelle Stewart said.

Both YVSC and the Colorado Energy Office submitted letters of support prior to the Oct. 11 council meeting asking the city to fully investigate current governmental funding options for a renewable energy geothermal installation for the new municipal complex. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis currently is spearheading a “Heat Beneath Our Feet” initiative of education and funding for geothermal systems.

“Geothermal energy represents a potentially valuable, but underdeveloped, energy resource in the West,” according to the Heat Beneath our Feet initiative. “Geothermal energy has applications for both utility-scale electricity generation and heating and cooling needs within buildings.”

The Yampa Valley Community Foundation plans to install ground source heat pumps for its building under construction on the corner of Fourth and Oak streets in downtown Steamboat.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

A geothermal heat pump, also called a ground source heat pump, is a heating and cooling system for buildings that utilize loops of circulating fluid below the ground to transfer warmer or cooler temperatures from the constant temperature below ground.

Stewart said a geothermal system should remain on the table for further city investigation because federal and state funding would lower the initial installation costs, and the fuel choice is “incredibly consequential” for a cornerstone city complex.

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“Committing the new city hall-fire station complex to fossil fuel-based boilers directly opposes the Climate Action Plan,” Stewart said in an Oct. 28 guest commentary in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. “Rather than working to reduce emissions, council is committing the city and our community to generating thousands more metric tons of carbon by 2050. As the impacts of climate change mount in our valley, nation and world, every decision made needs to reduce emissions, not guarantee more.”

Deputy City Manager Tom Leeson said Monday, the city currently is proceeding with the design phase based on direction for a natural gas system as directed by City Council on Oct. 11.

“We are on a timeline; if council decides to make a change, then the timeline will have to be adjusted,” Leeson said.

Leeson said the city’s mechanical consultant is still investigating a third option beyond natural gas boilers or geothermal for the inside of the buildings. Consultant ME Engineers in Golden was asked to provide information on high-efficiency electric boilers before the City Council meeting on Nov. 15. The move toward more fully electric buildings is considered a more fuel-friendly choice for the future than natural gas as the electric grid gradually moves to more renewable sources.

Yampa Valley Electric Association General Manager Steve Johnson said Friday that the co-op portfolio currently includes 42% renewable energy sources and that the YVEA board set a goal to deliver 70% renewable energy by 2030.

Xcel Energy, the majority wholesale power provider for YVEA, announced a “vision of delivering 100% carbon-free electricity to its customers by 2050,” according to a summer 2022 media release.

Leeson said the city also is working with previous solar array consultant McKinstry in Golden for information on a possible solar electric installation on the rooftop of both the new City Hall and Fire Station at 10th Street and Lincoln Avenue. Leeson said the plan for the complex includes natural gas for snowmelt systems in the concrete apron around the north and south entrances to the Fire Station with its three pull-through bays. Natural gas also is planned for use to power back-up generators, Leeson said.

In a guest commentary in the Pilot, Stewart noted, “Energy decisions in new construction are consequential because two-thirds of our GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions in Routt County come from our existing commercial and residential buildings via their fossil-fuel based heating systems.”

Bony, who has 20 years of prior experience in the ground source heat pump industry, said he does not see any initial red flags for adding geothermal for the planned construction.

“I think it could work with the space they have based on other projects I’ve experienced,” Bony said. “At the end of the day, a geothermal system that is properly designed and installed and matched with the right equipment will provide the lowest lifecycle cost and carbon emissions of any other technology.”

Leeson said some initial life-cycle analysis was completed by ME Engineers for what each heating and cooling system would cost throughout their lifespan in order to compare long-term costs beyond initial installation. The city is still awaiting the full lifecycle analysis report.

The current Steamboat Springs City Hall is set for demolition in May 2023 starting with asbestos mitigation and new construction will continue through October 2024, according to the project timeline.

Geoff Blakeslee, a retired conservation organization director and member of the Routt County Climate Action Plan Collaborative Board, said municipal leaders who adopted the CAP should be on board with the plan’s overarching objective to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

“The city and City Council need to understand what they have the capacity of doing and where they can make a difference.” Blakeslee said

Fellow CAP Collaborative Board member Sarah Jones, director of sustainability and community engagement for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., noted, “To me, the fact that Steamboat City Council did not consider carbon emissions as a critical deciding factor is a symptom of the fact that the municipalities haven’t adopted clear and specific goals for climate action to provide guidance in decision-making.”

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