Call from state officials prompts Steamboat officials to reverse decision on city hall |

Call from state officials prompts Steamboat officials to reverse decision on city hall

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

From about 9:30 to 11 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, Steamboat Springs City Council weighed the city‘s options for the heating ventilation and cooling system at the planned new city hall and fire station building.

City Council eventually decided 4-3 to direct city staff to move forward with an all-electric system in a move that was viewed as a compromise between controlling costs and sustainability.

“This was a tough one,” said council member Robin Crossan. “Thank you all very much for your passion.”

Leading up to council’s decision, it seemed as if every idea was attached to a “but.” 

“(Geothermal) significantly reduces the fossil fuels and is consistent with our Climate Action Plan,” said Deputy City Manager Tom Leeson. “But there are some cons in terms of the increased design and capital costs — anywhere between $2 million and $3 million — and would require an adjustment, at a minimum, of two to four months in the project schedule.”

A natural gas system with energy recovery ventilation was seen as the least expensive option, but its reliance on fossil fuels would collide with the city’s Climate Action Plan. There was also some fear the price of natural gas could skyrocket due to unforeseen circumstances. 

Based on conversations, the all-electric system was seen as a balance between City Council’s desire to stick to the Climate Action Plan and wanting to be fiscally responsible, as the all-electric system came with an upfront cost at $1.1 million more than the natural gas system.

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But the city’s annual energy bill is also expected to be higher with an all-electric system, and the energy grid still utilizes fossil fuels that aren’t any cleaner than natural gas.

Solar panels could be installed to help lessen energy use, but the Yampa Valley Electric Association is decreasing its limit on the amount of solar energy allowed to be returned to the grid from 150 kWh to 25 kWh, making solar panels far less cost efficient for large-scale projects.

However, the YVEA is also working toward sourcing 80% of its energy grid from renewables by 2030, up from 42% currently. But that transition could also mean that adding solar panels would offset less carbon emissions because they’d be replacing clean energy with clean energy.   

Based on Tuesday night‘s discussions, there was no obvious solution.  

Overall, City Council members felt that a geothermal system was too expensive, especially when they considered that an additional heating system would be needed to power the snow melt system for the fire station. Council spoke briefly about not installing a snow melt system, but Steamboat Fire Rescue has described it as a crucial piece of the structure’s design for safety and accessibility. 

Three City Council members — Heather Sloop, Michael Buccino and Robin Crossan — supported the natural gas system, while the other four supported all-electric. 

“I mean, come on guys,” Sloop said. “This is an insane amount of money. We haven’t even broken ground.” 

“But we’re also locking future councils in in terms of the increase in natural gas,” warned council member Gail Garey. 

According to an energy model used by the city based on statewide averages, an all-electric system would be about $113,000 a year, while the natural gas system would cost $69,000 each year. During public comments, Steamboat local Paul Bony said local averages for the price of natural gas are higher than the rates used in the energy model pegged them.  

“Natural gas in this town is $1.15 a therm, not 75 cents,” Bony said. “And electricity was slightly overstated by about a half a cent.”

Senior Policy Analyst Christine Berg from the Colorado Energy Office said the city’s decision to go all-electric would make the project eligible for grants such as the Public Building Electrification Grant, which will eventually distribute $10 million to public projects that utilize all-electric or geothermal systems. 

But Leeson cautioned against assuming grant eligibility.

“You should budget for the projects with the assumption that no grants will be received,” Leeson said. “And then if we do receive grants, it‘s a bonus.”

The decision to shift to all-electric also comes after state officials seem to have taken an interest in the local project.

With local officials confident that Steamboat Springs is eligible for a $750,000 Energy Impact Assistance Fund Grant, City Manager Gary Suiter confirmed that he recently received a call from the Department of Local Affairs. Suiter said the department official told him that they had been contacted by officials at the Colorado Energy Office who had concerns about the city hall and fire station project. 

“It was an awkward call,” Suiter said. “They basically said we needed to be prepared to answer questions. So yeah, I kind of took that as a warning flare that the grant may be in jeopardy. I can’t speculate that. We still should go down and present our case to the committee.”

Suiter said the city would qualify for the grant even with a natural gas system, according to the application requirements.

However, Yampa Valley Sustainability Council Executive Director Michelle Stewart said she was under the impression that the DOLA funds were under question because of the city’s decision to install a natural gas system. 

“It is our understanding via conversations with the Colorado Energy Office that the presumed DOLA funding up to $750,000 — three quarters of a million dollars — that is now in question is because it truly opposes the state‘s greenhouse gas emission reduction roadmap,” Stewart said. 

A spokesperson for the Colorado Energy Office wrote in a statement: “Through technical assistance support, (the Colorado Energy Office) often makes recommendations to local governments on matters related to energy planning when invited to do so. Steamboat voted to select a high efficiency electric heat pump system for their new projects. DOLA has not made awards for this round of EIAF grants so the claim that those funds are in jeopardy is not correct.” 

A spokesperson for DOLA said the same, adding that the energy office doesn’t make choices regarding DOLA’s grant applications, “but merely makes recommendations to local governments on matters related to energy planning.” 

The city has already completed an updated design that incorporates the all-electric HVAC system, and on Dec. 6 city staff will present before the EIAF committee in Pueblo to make their case for the $750,000 DOLA grant.

“We’ll give it our best shot and then we’ll see what happens,” Suiter said. “You know, some grants we get, some grants we don’t.”

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