YVSC guest column: Investments in new city hall, fire station need to lead by example 

Michelle O. Stewart
Guest column

During the Oct. 11 Steamboat Springs City Council meeting, council gave “straw poll” direction to staff on the energy systems for the forthcoming city hall and fire station complex, two buildings that should stand as emblematic pillars of our community for at least the next 50 years. New construction opportunities like these don’t happen often: Design and construction decisions leave legacies and we need to decide what we want ours to be.

Council was deciding between three energy system options for the complex, which soon became a decision between two — a natural-gas boiler heating system and a geothermal heat pump system. On a closely divided vote, council directed city staff to pursue the natural gas boiler system because it had the lowest first costs at $4.7 million, or 14.85% of the total estimated project cost of $31.7 million. By comparison, the much more efficient geothermal system was estimated at $6 million (19.2% of total costs).  

Energy decisions in new construction are consequential because two-thirds of our GHG emissions in Routt County come from our existing commercial and residential buildings via their fossil-fuel based heating systems. Because of this, a key strategy in the city-adopted Routt County Climate Action Plan, which provides a set of strategies to reduce GHG emissions across key sectors, is to “promote fuel switching, or beneficial electrification.” Pursuing beneficial electrification is essential in the effort to reduce emissions because as the energy grid shifts toward renewable energy sources, electrified buildings will not generate new emissions. 

Committing the new city hall and fire station complex to fossil fuel-based boilers directly opposes the Climate Action Plan. 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.

Council’s direction cuts costs at the place that is most consequential for climate, without looking to trim costs elsewhere or pursuing federal and state funds to lower the first costs of the geothermal option. 

Recognizing that first costs for high efficiency electric heating and geothermal energy systems are often higher than natural gas energy systems, there are unprecedented state and federal funds available to lower first costs for climate-aligned infrastructural investments.

As Will Toor, executive director of Colorado Energy Office, wrote in a letter to council before their meeting urging them “to fully explore state and federal programs before committing to new fossil fuel infrastructure for public buildings,” up to $920,000 of federal and state funding is possible for a geothermal/electric energy system for the complex, making geothermal possibly “the most cost effective and sustainable option for council to consider.”

The geothermal option presents the best opportunity to showcase beneficial electrification in action. A properly designed geothermal heating and cooling system is the most effective path to a low-no-carbon city hall and fire station complex, and a proper analysis would likely reveal it to have the lowest life cycle cost. Combined with the state and federal grant opportunities, there is clear opportunity to lower first costs of the geothermal system. 

Last, and not least, council’s direction likely foregoes their greatest opportunity to substantively reduce GHG emissions in the city for the next 50 years. Is this the legacy decision we want?

A key tenet in the Climate Action Plan is that local governments will lead by example in decision-making that affects climate. Making the right decisions for climate in the design of the seat of government in Steamboat Springs should be the first place to lead.

Michelle O. Stewart, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council.

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