La Plata Electric evaluating its energy options

Community groups in Durango have pushed for the city to insist upon 100 percent renewable energy.

Electric co-op plans study of its options

La Plata Electric responds to push for low-carbon energy

by Allen Best

DURANGO, Colo. – Electricity products and costs are changing so terribly fast. Solar, especially, but even wind used to be considered expensive. They were.

But that was then. Prices of renewables have been tumbling so rapidly that more and more utilities are sizing up their options.

The latest to make a move is La Plata Electric Association. The Durango-based electrical co-operative is one of 43 co-ops from New Mexico to Wyoming supplied by Tri-State Generation & Transmission. Tri-State transmits electricity from the big federal dams of the West and, to a lesser extent, other renewable resources: 26 percent altogether. Most of the rest comes from coal-fired power plants.

By a 6-to-5- vote, directors of La Plata have agreed to “evaluate likely scenarios” for the co-op’s “energy needs for the next 10 to 15 years.” For each scenario, the committee is to “account for possible costs, risks, benefits and legal and contractual obligations…”

Nowhere is there specific mention of Tri-State, but a press release notes that there have been discussions among directors and the Durango-area altogether about the value of the co-op’s remaining 33-year contract with Tri-State. The subcommittee is expected to research various options by March 21.

The Durango City Council last September received a petition with 1,000 signatures calling for the city government to ensure that 100 percent of its electricity comes from local, renewable sources by 2050.

The contract with Tri-State to 2040 obligates La Plata to get 95 percent of its power from the wholesale provider.

One other electrical co-op has already bailed from Tri-State, although the 2016 divorce cost Taos-based Kit Carson Electric Cooperative $37 million. Kit Carson has set out to achieve 100 percent renewable generation during daylight hours by 2020. Further, directors believe this can be done while actually saving ratepayers money. They are working with a new company, Guzman Energy, which has an office in Denver.

Another co-op, Delta-Montrose Electric, may be leaving. Minutes of the board of directors meeting for January 2017 say that the board adopted a resolution directing the co-op’s chief executive to “negotiate the terms of an exit from Tri-State.”

The current contract calls for Tri-State to supply up to 95 percent of the co-op’s power through 2040. However, in what many saw as a decision with regional if not national implications, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission several years ago sided with the local co-op in a fight with Tri-State. The disagreement was whether the local co-op had latitude to get more than 5 percent of its power from local sources. The electricity in question comes from harnessing of fast-moving water in an irrigation canal.

The background story is that renewables, coupled with natural gas, time and again, are undercutting prices of coal-generated electricity.

A case in point: Xcel Energy announced its plans last August to close two coal plants in Colorado early and replace the lost electrical generation with renewables and natural gas. It said it could do so while keeping the rates flat or possibly even reducing the costs to consumers.

If that change is approved by state regulators, 55 percent of Xcel’s power within Colorado will come from renewable sources.

Xcel provides electricity for Breckenridge and other Summit county towns and is a wholesale provider for various other electrical co-ops, including those that serve Steamboat Springs, Vail, and portions of Aspen.

Even so, the bids of independent power producers announced in late December surprised many, drawing national attention. They are low, low, low. Forget about the reputation of renewables being like Perrier.

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Colorado getting charged up about electric vehicles

A car gets charged up at Carbondale. Photo/CLEER

Few EVs in rural Colorado now, but with spark that may change

Expect to see fast-charging stations along highways in 2018

 by Allen Best

GUNNISON, Colo. – Crested Butte and Gunnison together may have 22 electric vehicles, not counting plug-in hybrids or EVs driven into the mountain valley from elsewhere.

Charging stations? That’s easy. Five can be found between in the two towns and another one is located 55 miles away at Lake City, in Hinsdale County.

None of the charging stations get a ton of use, but that’s not the point. The purpose of the free fueling stations is to get people comfortable with the idea of electric cars.

EV charging station at the Gunnison town hall. Photo/Allen Best

Colorado’s state government has been assisting in many local efforts to smooth and accelerate the transition to electrified transportation. Gov. John Hickenlooper—who is scheduled to make an announcement Wednesday morning at Denver’s Alliance Center about “Colorado’s Electric Vehicle Corridor”—unveiled a plan in 2016 to create electrified interstate highways in common with Utah and Nevada. Last year, other Western states agreed to join in.

Now, the state is expanding its effort to secondary highways, both federal and state.

In doing this Colorado will draw on its share of the Volkswagen settlement. Hickenlooper’s staff has apportioned $10.8 million from the state’s $68 million share to boost installation of charging infrastructure for EVs.

One-third is to be used for in-town locations but two-thirds is to go to highways. U.S. Highway 50 through Gunnison could be a potential recipient.

“If you want to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, you want to create a statewide network that allows the owner of an EV to go anywhere in the state,” explains Christian Williss, director of the transportation fuels & technology department at the Colorado Energy Office.

Williss says his department is creating an invitation for proposals to be made by late March. The state hopes to find partners, including rural electrical co-operatives, development corporations, and local and regional governments. The state sees need for charging stations every 30 to 50 miles, more or less, and with fast-charging stations, unlike the cheaper and slower Level II charging stations such as in Gunnison and Crested Butte.

Denver recently commissioned a study that estimated costs of two fast-charging stations and one Level II station, including installation, at $190,000 to $200,000.

While technology is rapidly changing, most cars can get an 80 percent charge at a fast-charging station in 20 to 30 minutes. But it depends upon the size of the battery.

In early December, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission heard testimony about such things as where public money is best spent in charging stations and other elements of public policy. Basalt-based Rocky Mountain Institute was given the most prominent spot of the day, followed by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.

Gunnison might not seem like a likely candidate for being at the front end of electric vehicles. It used to have a reputation for deep cold, and it’s still four hours from Denver. It has rich people shuttle in and out, but it’s not an Aspen or Vail. What it does have is a loaner EV called Spark-e that was purchased in 2016 by the Gunnison County Electric Association. It can be borrowed for up to a week to help people decide whether they want to buy an EV of their own. “People are enjoying driving Spark-e so much that it hasn’t been back to the office since June,” reported the association’s December newsletter.

This activity has put Mike McBride, the general manager of the electrical co-op, on the speaking circuit at state-wide conferences. McBride believes Gunnison is at the front edge of efforts to anticipate vehicle electrification in rural areas.

But people in both cities and rural areas, he says, use fundamentally the same criterion when purchasing a car: “Most people base their purchase decisions on a few trips, not their daily us. If you live in Denver but enjoy going to the mountains, you’re going to base your purchase decisions on whether you can still go to the mountains. If you are living in a rural community, you are going to base your purchase on those few occasions when you got to the city.”

From Crested Butte to Denver is 4.5 hours in good weather. Importantly, there are no charging stations along Highway 50 between Gunnison and Salida, 65 miles away. This may matter less as newer models arrive with longer range and lower prices. Changes are rapidly occurring in both dimensions.

Rutt Bridges, a Denver-based author now working on his second book about the future of transportation, points out that Chevy Bolts have a range of 238 miles, while Tesla’s Model 3 has an EPA-listed range of 220 miles. The Bolt costs $37,500 but has been discounted by as much as $5,000, while the Tesla lists for $35,000. Colorado has an additional $5,000 in tax incentives for those with incomes high enough to take advantage of them.

Battery costs have rapidly declined, from $700 a kilowatt-hour seven years ago to $139 now. Tesla and General Motors predict prices tumbling below $100 by 2020, Bridges reported in November in Maize: Techo Food for Thought.

Bridges also believes fueling costs make a strong case for conversion to electric vehicles. Cost of electricity is one-third that of gasoline and has been far more stable, he says. He also cites the greater efficiency of electric motors (90 percent vs. the 20 percent of an internal combustion engine).

Because of these gains and advantages, Bridges projects that sales of EVs will significantly expand beyond the current 1 percent of U.S. vehicle sales. Will Toor, transportation program manager for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, points out that Colorado has the 6th largest market share of EVs in the country.

Electrical utilities, with flat and sometimes declining sales in recent years, also have a strong reason to want to see more EVs. This is more straight-forward with investor-owned utilities like Xcel Energy than with electrical co-ops like Gunnison Electric. McBride says environmental goals rank high among many members of his co-op. In co-ops, members are also customers. “We tend to do our best to meet and balance the needs and wishes of our members,” he says.

Environmental goals are high on the list of many co-op members. As aging coal plants have closed, transportation has moved ahead of power supply as the single largest cause for greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

EVs achieve pollution reduction if electricity comes from less carbon-intensive sources. The power from Tri-State Generation & Transmission, the wholesale provider for Gunnison, remains heavy in coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas. But it has coal plants going down, too.

As utilities convert to renewable energy, EV charging can be paired with cheap renewables, provided owners are content to let their cars get fueled when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Time-of-use rates can encourage this pairing.

Gunnison County Electric has no rates designed with EV charging in mind, but “that may evolve over time” along with other rates, says McBride.

With the proper price signals, charging of EVs can be matched with availability of low-priced power, to the benefit of both the utility and consumers.

Optional time-of-use rates currently are 8.8 cents a kilowatt-hour 19 hours a day and all of Sunday, but 23.2 cents per kilowatt-hour between 5 and 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. There’s a $35 monthly fee. The default rate 24.7.365 rate is 12.7 cents.

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Talking about integration of renewables with a smile

Xcel Energy’s Greater Sandhill Solar Farm north of Alamosa, Colo. Colorado’s San Luis Valley has some of the nation’s best solar resource. Photo/Allen Best

What’s needed to integrate renewables at scale in the U.S. electrical grids

by Allen Best

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — For  all the worries about budget cuts as Donald Trump ascended to the presidency a year ago, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at Golden, Colo., has remained intact and, in at least one division, is expanding.

That particular division, the Strategic Energy Analysis Center, will add 40 analysts by the end of the year to the existing 150, reported David Mooney, the director.

That division has several major studies to wrap up and others soon to get start, said Mooney in Fort Collins Tuesday evening at an event sponsored by the local chapter of the  Colorado Renewable Energy Society.

In March, a study will be released that examines the costs and benefits of breaking down the electrical fences in the United States. The West, the East, and Texas are all on different grids, interconnected but not integrated. Think of three people holding hands, three heartbeats, but not quite with the same timing.

A seamlessly-connected grid would cost trillions of dollars to create but would yield so many benefits that the cost would be reimbursed within 15 years if the work were started in 2024.

Another study, due in October 2019, examines renewable energy integration across North America, not just the United States.

Then there’s the study—expected to be due in 2020, although Mooney said the contract has not been finalized—that will examine what the options would be for the Los Angeles Basin, home to 13 million people, to achieve 100 percent electrification based on renewable energy. “That is real exciting,” he said.

The tone of the evening was a smile. Renewable energy is happening—even more rapidly than many people expected. Mooney related the prices of solar energy when he was a grad student in the 1980s, the most optimistic predictions of the time—and now the reality that is far, far below those most optimistic projections.

Just how low can these prices for renewable go? In Colorado, proposals by independent power developers to Xcel Energy announced in late December were “some crazy good prices,” said Mooney. Wind, as expected, came in at the very lowest, but solar prices, too, were very low.

In fact, Colorado has pretty good solar resources, especially in the San Luis Valley. Mooney related how, after Colorado voters in 2004 ordered Xcel and the state’s other investor-owned utility, Black Hills Energy, to begin investing in renewables, he was at a meeting with representatives of Xcel. He informed them that some of the nation’s best solar capacity was to be found in the San Luis Valley. Three weeks later Xcel was buying land, and the valley now has 26 megawatts of solar generating capacity.

It’s about as good as the Mojave Desert because not only is it nearly as cloudless, but it’s also high, about 8,000 feet, meaning there are no extremely hot days. That results in better electrical production.

But wind is where Colorado really excels, at least in terms of raw generating capacity. It ranks 10th nationally, with about three gigawatts in capacity. Wind now provides about 17 percent of the total electricity consumed by customers of Xcel on an annual basis. Xcel is the state’s largest utility, with more than 60 percent of the state’s customers, including those in Summit County. Xcel is also a wholesale provider for several electrical co-operatives in mountain valleys, including Steamboat Springs and the Yampa Valley and the Vail and Aspen areas.

What stands out is how rapidly this has all come about. Mooney said when he was a grad student in the late 1980s, the world had a total of 50 megawatts of wind, solar and other renewable generation. Now, the United States alone has 1,180 gigawatts and the world has 6,000 gigawatts. One gigawatt has 1,000 megawatts.

If the United States has exploded with renewable generating capacity, and Germany with solar collectors, China has blown past everybody.

Now comes energy storage. Again, it’s not new, but from 2010 to 2017, prices of lithium-ion battery storage have dropped 81 percent.

This plummeting cost of storage is now causing energy analysts like Mooney to begin shifting their thinking. They are no longer asking at what penetration level is storage necessary. Instead, they’re starting to wonder what happens if storage become ubiquitous.

If deep, broad penetration of renewables in the electrical and—more broadly—energy supplies is the goal, then what helps achieve that?

To maximize renewables, he said, the electrical grid needs to be flexible, able to respond rapidly to changes in demand but also changes in supply. Storage, he said, is the ultimate source of flexibility. He also emphasized strengths achieved through the interconnections of effective transmission. The final component is geo-spatial diversity of resources.

“For a robust, well-interconnected transmission system, geo-spatial diversity in assets is really key,” he said.

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Telluride’s low-snow-winter experiment

The storm on Wednesday provided a badly needed thin blanket of snow at Telluride. After a ski season of virtually no snow, the resort received 23 inches in five days. Photo/ Telluride Ski & Golf

Making lemonade in Telluride during a winter of very little natural snow

by Allen Best

TELLURIDE, Colo. – It finally snowed during the last week in Telluride, 23 inches in five days, enough to whiten the landscape and cloak some of the grass. At least for a bit, the lab experiment is on hold.

That unwitting experiment being tested at Telluride and a good many other resorts this winter has been whether a ski resort can operate and have great success without snow falling from the heavens?

Snow surveys conducted last week in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado found snow depths 22 percent of normal. To the north in Colorado, they were reported to be 65 percent of normal. Aspen got nine inches over the weekend, hardly worth mentioning in most years. This year it’s the equivalent of a man biting a dog.

In Telluride, the chief executive of the community’s promotional arm reports no grim hits to the community tourism economy—not yet at least. “It’s not all about snow,” says Michael Martelon, of VisitTelluride. “But if we had it, it would make everything else better.”

Martelon is quick to note that Telluride differs from resorts close to cities in that its customers mostly come from long distances. Denver is six hours away, Phoenix eight. Snow is somewhat less important to its visitors than weekend skiing customers on Colorado’s I-70 corridor or those from Utah’s Wasatch Front.

Telluride still has skiing, thanks in part to $15 million in snowmaking investments in the last six years. But for many visitors, skiing is not the end all, be all. There are galleries, restaurants, and even the Jud Wiebe Trail. Located on the south-facing slopes above Telluride, it was still accessible even after the first storm in the recent sequence.

Christmas was strong, and the only repercussion so far has been a softening in bookings for spring break. Lodges require 45-day advance payment, he notes. But for the moment, bookings are pacing to be ahead of last year.

Martelon sees lemonade when others, especially locals accustomed to daily blasts of powder, see lemons. “It might be a blessing in disguise,” he says. “Taking care of the guest becomes the absolute priority, because the snow isn’t doing it for you.”

That said, he suggested checking back in May, to see if his optimism was fully justified.

Wednesday morning at Telluride. Photo/Telluride Ski & Golf.

Elsewhere in the West’s ski towns, Ketchum and Sun Valley reported a lucrative holiday season, better in most cases than the year before. Before, there was powder to ski in the morning. This year, there was little compelling reason to arise, so people stay out at night, explained the Idaho Mountain Express.

At the foot of the ski area, the Ketchum Ranger Station had no measurable snow on the ground on Jan. 1. That’s a first since record-keeping began in 1938, according to the National Weather Service.

But on Wednesday, the Mountain Express proclaimed that the valley “finally looks like winter.”

In Aspen, there was optimism that snowmaking—helped by cold nights—will save the day for the X Games Aspen on Jan. 25-28.

“It really is impressive what the snowmaking and grooming teams have been able to do,” Jeff Hanle, spokesman for the company, told the Aspen Daily News.

In California, an early January snow survey near the entrance to the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski area revealed an average depth of 1.3 inches of snow. The water in that snow is 3 percent of the long-term average for the location, at about 6,640 feet (2,020 meters) in elevation, reported Lake Tahoe News.

Will this change? “There is still a lot of winter left,” Frank Gehrke, who conducts the survey, said. “January, February and into March are frequently productive.”

That said, there are concerns about whether the warming Arctic could in coming decades produce changes in the Pacific Ocean that will more frequently create the high-pressure ridges that have plagued California in recent years. This same high-pressure ridge was blamed for the lack of snow across the West until this past week. See Dec. 7 story in Mountain Town News.


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What comes next for Vail Resorts’ carbon neutrality

The three Comanche power plants at Pueblo, Colo. supply power for Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen. Two units, signified by red-striped stacks, are likely to be replaced by low-priced renewables in 2025. Photo/Allen Best

Vail Resorts takes steps to make good on its goal of carbon neutrality

by Allen Best

BROOMFIELD, Colo. – Vail Resorts has taken a step to make good on its vow to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030, one of a trio of ambitious environmental goals announced last year by chief executive Rob Katz.

Vail yesterday announced it has engaged Renewable Choice Energy, a company based in Boulder, Colo., to help identify and implement renewable energy projects that it can purchase or fund as part of its comprehensive sustainability commitment. Renewable Choice Energy is a subsidiary of Schneider Electric.

How Vail intends to do this was not clear. A spokeswoman for Vail said the company is in the very early stages of engagement. “We want to bring more renewable energy online,” said Liz Biebl, but she did not offer details.

Auden Schendler, the vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Co., suspects that Vail will end up entering into commitments called power purchase agreements. Such agreements trigger development of a wind, solar or other renewable generation project.

Google and Microsoft have been entering into such purchase agreements for wind power to provide electricity or their data centers.

The project may not necessarily be local, he speculates, but might be in a state where Vail has no operations, say Pennsylvania or Nebraska. The electricity is not provided directly to the company’s operations, but does provide the accounting to justify the company saying it has achieved net-zero emissions. Some of its local electricity may come from carbon sources, but it is offset by the new renewable generation produced elsewhere.

In pushing for net-zero emissions energy, Vail is swimming with a strengthening current. Many communities where it does business have adopted comparable goals, and renewable electricity has become much, much cheaper—in many cases the lowest cost electricity.

Many cities and some counties where Vail does business have adopted 100 percent renewable goals, among them South Lake Tahoe,  Breckenridge and Park City. In pushing for net-zero emissions energy, Vail is swimming with a strengthening current. Many communities where it does business have adopted comparable goals, and renewable electricity has become much, much cheaper—in many cases the lowest cost electricity.

The utilities that serve these resorts have also generally agreed to work with the localities to push the clean-energy agenda. But they remain heavily invested in carbon generation, both coal and natural gas.

The shift toward non-carbon sources, once at the pace of a turtle, is now rushing like a hare. Xcel Energy subsidiary Public Service Co. of Colorado in August announced plans to close to coal-fired power plants at Pueblo, replacing the 660 megawatts of lost generation with wind, solar and probably natural gas, depending upon bids.

David Eves, the president of Public Service Co., said at the time he expected that consumers will pay no more, perhaps even pay less.

A wind farm near Medicine Bow, Wyo. Photo/Allen best

Xcel in late November got bids for the replacement power to the two coal plants in Pueblo, Colo. Even those who were aware of how rapidly prices were dropping for renewables were surprised, even shocked.

“Wow!!” said Leslie Glustrom, an energy activist in Boulder, Colo., who has been prodding Xcel for 15 years to accelerate its shift. “Check out those prices!”

Median wind price was below 2 cents a kilowatt-hour. Median solar was below 3 cents. Median solar with battery storage came in at 3.6 cents, lowest in the nation ever. Coal is much higher.

With the shift, Public Service believes it can expand its non-carbon generating portfolio from 30 percent today to 55 percent by 2025.

A decade has made a huge difference. In 2007, Vail Resorts, then a much smaller company, announced it was buying renewable energy credits, or RECs, from wind farms sufficient to offset its carbon emissions 100 percent. The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News made it front-page news, and it was the lead item in the New York Times national section. But not everybody was impressed. There has always been a squishiness associated with REC. With power purchase agreements, the proof of additionality is clear.

This is different, said Schendler, and if Vail indeed pursues purchase power agreements, it will be a real accomplishment as part of its Epic Promise, as the company brands it.

Vail Resorts’ Katz also committed to zero waste to landfill and zero net operating impact to forests and habitat, both by 2030.

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A winter to rival those of the worst drought years

A Colorado winter to remember so far, but for entirely the wrong reason

by Allen Best

MT. CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – If there were people skiing at Crested Butte Mountain Resort on Sunday afternoon, more telling of this season of snowy abnormality were the driveways of homes and condo parking lots.

Poles had been placed along the edge of asphalt, to give snowplowers an idea of where to scrape. The poles stood in just an inch or two of snow, if that.

A bountiful winter this is not, at least so far in resorts in Colorado and more southerly locations of the continent.

In the San Juan Mountains, even less snow was evident over the weekend. Travelers to Telluride commonly will travel from Ridgway to Dallas Divide, passing as they do the stunningly beautiful hay meadows of the ranch owned by Ralph Lauren. Snow is the common denominator for Christmas week, but almost no snow was evident Friday amid the hay stubble.

At Telluride, one man was walking in shorts, and skis were almost entirely absent from the town streets. The Plunge, the famed ski run, showed as much grass as snow. Along Colorado Avenue, the town’s main artery, doors were open and shops were busy.

Doors were open, shoppers were thick, and snow scant in Crested Butte on Sunday. Photo/Allen Best

Vail had more natural snow but still not very much. A resident reported the village streets were busy—too busy. There were people in town because there just wasn’t that much excuse to be on the ski hill.

Shops along Crested Butte’s Elk Avenue were busy, too, the doors wide open because it just wasn’t that cold.

In Tahoe, it was much the same story: abnormal heat and not much snow. The National Weather Service reported several highs were broken during the days after Christmas. The Tahoe Daily News reported many injuries on the ski slopes. “Without fresh snow, injuries are more common at ski resorts because of the hard-pack conditions,” the website noted.

Have their been more barren winters in Colorado during the modern ski era?

At the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory near Crested Butte, billy barr (his choice of capitalization) has been keeping track of snow and temperatures since 1974. This winter has been surpassed by the lack of snow only by that of 1976-77. What is also notable about barr’s weather records for this winter is the string of highest temperatures, including the highest temperature in his data base for New Year’s Day: 37 degrees.

That said, another winter, of 1980-81, invites comparisons. It, too, had sparse snow and warm temperatures. On Jan. 1 of that winter, the Denver Post published a photograph of a lift-op at Steamboat wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sitting in a lawn chair, no snow in sight.

From Pagosa Springs, Colo., comes this memory from Rod Proffitt:  “I must be getting to be an old timer. I remember the 1976-77 winter very well. I had just moved from Aspen to Cripple Creek to start a law practice, but I had promised some friends I would come back for Winterskol that year.

Believe it or not, I was able to drive over Independence Pass mid-January that year. I had a cousin living in Crested Butte that year. With no snow, the perma-frost went down below the water lines and froze up the whole town. They had a miserable winter that year.

Cripple Creek rarely had a snow cover so their wood pipes were much deeper and survived that winter, but in the Spring a mountain goat died and fell into one of the reservoirs on Pikes Peak. The whole town of Cripple Creek got sick that year. Yes, it was a memorable year….”the year of no snow” to us old timers.”

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Puzzling suicide risk in ski towns

Why the despair of suicide among the great beauty of mountain towns? 

Eagle County, where Vail is located, had 15 suicides in 2017. Western states lead the country in suicides. Photo/Town of Vail.

by Allen Best

VAIL, Colo. – Suicide has been in the news again in ski towns. Eagle County, where Vail is located, had 15 suicide deaths in 2017, posing again the question of why suicide is an option in a place of such beauty and relative prosperity.

In New Mexico, suicide dogs the community of Taos. Some 48 people have died after jumping off the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the 7th highest in the nation, since it was completed in 1965.

In Aspen, Telluride, and Jackson Hole — the same question returns again and again: Why, in places suitable for calendar photos, do so many people want to check out early?

Western states lead the nation in suicide rates per 100,000 residents. The national rate is 13.7, but Wyoming tops the nation with 28 followed by Alaska (26.9), Montana (25.3), New Mexico (23.7), Utah (22.4), and Idaho (22.1). Colorado came in 9th (19.5.)

New York (7.8) and New Jersey (8.3) have the nation’s lowest suicide rates, according to the Center for Disease Control.

It’s not clear that ski towns come in higher than their states. An analysis in Colorado done by blocs of counties suggests that places like Vail, Aspen, and Telluride don’t have higher suicide rates.

Still, it’s impossible not to be struck by the irony of suicide amidst great beauty and wealth. Several stories have been written that probe this dichotomy. For example, after the writer Hunter Thompson committed suicide in February 2005 near Aspen, The Denver Post discovered that the suicide rate there spikes regularly twice as high as the rest of Colorado and three times the national rate.

Experts blamed it on the “paradise factor.”

“Aspen just doesn’t always work out to be the utopia people think it will be when they come here. They come here thinking Aspen is going to solve all their problems. But we bring our problems with us,” said Roy Holloway, chaplain for the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department.

The stories have emphasized that it’s almost never one single cause. There are, however, many strong correlations.

In Eagle County, experts describe a link between substance abuse and suicide. People involved with the courts, both criminal and civil, are also at heightened risk, experts tell the Vail Daily. This can include divorce, probation, and criminal charges. Divorce or child custody disputes can be a precursor.

What causes the drinking and substance abuse? In the case of Aspen, experts pointed to the pressures of trying to make a living in high-priced location.

Even amid the spectacular beauty of Telluride there have been suicides. Photo/Allen Best

Isolation, too, seems to be a factor, even in small-mountain towns. A National Geographic reporter in 2016 told about a suicide of a once vigorous athlete on an old mining road leading out of Telluride leading toward Imogene Pass. Experts said residents in ski towns tend to lack intergenerational relationships and deep social attachments, which protect against suicide.

“They’ve moved away from their natural support systems, and they have to rebuild a support system,“ explained Michael H. Allen, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Depression Center.

See also: On the dark side of bright-eyed paradise in mountain towns

A 2010 study by a Utah neurosurgeon also probed the correlation between thinner air of higher elevations and higher rates of suicide.

Dr. Perry F. Renshaw, a psychiatry professor at the Utah School of Medicine, examined the hypothesis that the metabolic stress that results from the insufficient intake of oxygen could significantly aggravate and contribute to such risk—particularly among people who already struggle with mood disorders, depression, or both.

Renshaw and an associate found that suicide rates go up with both gun ownership and residency in rural areas. Even after accounting for those factors, they concluded that high altitude appears to be a risk factor for suicide. Those living at 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) in elevation had a one-third higher risk than those at sea level.

Supporting this argument was separate analysis of data in South Korea, which found those at 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) had suicide rates 125 percent of those at sea level.

Reached last week, Renshaw told Mountain Town News that he and others have expanded their study of the altitude and suicide correlation to Spain, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Peru, and Chile to further lend support for the hypothesis.

Renshaw in 2010 had told HealthDay that asthma and air pollution had previously been linked in research to increased suicide rates around the world.

The charitable fund created by Vail Resorts chief executive Rob Katz and his wife, Elana Amsterdam, has decided to focus on mental health issues. The Katz and Amsterdam fund will distribute $100,00 grants to many of the communities where Vail Resorts does business.

According to a press release issued by Vail Resorts, residents surveyed in resort communities have indicated they don’t know where to turn for help when facing mental health issues. Other barriers can exist even if resources are available: cost, perceived stigma, and language.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth ages 14-25 in the United States.

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Emissions reductions and the struggles of Aspen and Whistler

What Aspen & Whistler’s stories say about the challenge of emissions 

by Allen Best

Two of the world’s most high-profile ski towns are showing just how difficult reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be.

Whistler, the municipality, had aimed to knock down greenhouse gas emissions, or GHGs, 33 percent by 2020, as compared to 2007 levels. Aspen, the municipality, in 2005 had adopted a comparable goal.

Both have ratcheted down GHGs, just not near enough.Whistler’s GHG profile has shrunk 8.7 percent compared to the 2007 benchmark. Even better, the per-capita decrease was 5.3 percent. But because of increased population growth, the community altogether has been backsliding. Emissions have actually gained in the last three years.

Aspen knocked down its carbon footprint by 7 percent between 2004 and 2014. A new accounting to be done next year will likely show even deeper cuts have been achieved, says  Chris Menges, a climate planner for Aspen’s city government.

But to hit the city’s 2020 target would require a 6.6 percent reduction each year for the next three years. It won’t happen, he told his city council last week.

Give both towns credit. They’ve done much. Aspen Electric, a major supplier of the community, achieved carbon-neutral status in 2015. Aided by a non-profit group called Community Office for Resource Efficiency, public buildings, businesses, and homes have become more energy efficient.. Ridership on Aspen’s buses and those in the Roaring Fork Valley has grown.

In Whistler, an affordable housing project built as athletes’ housing for the 2012 Olympics uses waste heat from sewage treatment to provide space and water heat. Emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, have been contained from an old landfill. In 2010, the ski area got behind a new run-of-the-river hydroelectric plant in Fitzsimmons Creek. That allows Whistler Blackcomb to produce as much electricity as it consumes.

Still, these are passing grades, not A’s.

Looking deeper into the future, the storyline darkens. By 2050, both Aspen and Whistler have vowed reductions of 80 percent. But if population growth in Aspen continues and reductions continue at the current pace, says Menges, the community will have only reduced its GHG footprint 3.5 percent by mid-century.

Evidence continues to pile up

Civilization will not rise or fall depending upon what Aspen and Whistler get done. But because they are high-profile towns, its leaders and residents educated and engaged, their laggard pace is even more concerning. These are communities that early in the last decade, well before Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” came out, had declared these serous goals.

The evidence that has tumbled in since then has done nothing to reduce the imperative for changing how we live. The greenhouse effect is no mere hypothesis, but a full-blow theory that explains much of what is being observed. Almost every year come new for global temperatures, and glaciers continue to melt even more rapidly than predicted.

Oceans pose the most worrisome evidence. According to “Chasing Coral,” a new movie, the temperature are equivalent of a person having 102 degree temperature when 98.6 is normal. Oceans have absorbed 90 percent of the heat and 25 percent of the carbon dioxide.

The problem has never been completely about what is evident now. Scientists always warned that effects would be delayed, like the effects of a life-long lousy diet suddenly erupting at age 65 with sharp pains to the chest.

Ocean levels have risen 16 to 21 centimeters since 1900. Of that, 8 centimeters (3.1 inches) has occurred since 1993. Sea level may rise up to 8 feet by 2100, according to current projections. “The probability of such an extreme outcome cannot currently be assessed,” says Radley Horton, a climate scientist at Columbia University whose research focuses on extreme weather events, the limitations of climate models and adaptation to climate change.

If the precise risk cannot be given, it still should concern everybody, even those who live at higher elevations. Customers of ski towns mostly  live in coastal cities. Beyond that, imagine the unsettling problem of refugees if cities like Miami are put at risk, a picture that Jeff Goodell paints in his new book, “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.”

If Goodell’s book title sounds apocalyptic, he seems relatively mild-mannered compared with the always stern writing of Bill McKibben. “If we don’t win very quickly on climate change, then we will never win,” he says in an essay in Rolling Stone called “Winning Slowly is the Same as Losing.”

McKibben makes the case that a pathway to a low- or no-carbon future can now be seen. He brooks no tolerance for delay. Getting there can’t wait until 2075. “Indeed, the decisions we make in 2025 will matter much less than the ones we make in the next few years. The leverage is now.”

Role of ski towns

Ski towns have an outsized role in this debate. Their high profiles give them an opportunity to speak to influential people. Aspen drew national attention in 2005 when it adopted its climate change manifesto, the Canary Initiative.

But the influence is proportionate to the genuine effort exerted and success achieved. Otherwise, it’s just posturing.

Daniel Kreeger, executive director of the Association of Climate Change Officers, a national organization with whom Aspen and other Colorado ski towns are affiliated, points to the difficulty of completely recalculating energy systems.

“Once you get past trimming the fat of efficiency, you have to go through a substantial change in behavior or a substantial redesign of operations in some way, shape or form. That is going to be complicated under the best of circumstances,” he says. He argues for having the right amount of people, with the necessary skills and resources, devoted to the challenge.

Too, ski towns can only do so much on their own. Their reductions need to be part of state and national efforts. They do not, for example have their own car-manufacturing plants.

Major changes on the horizon may help ski towns meet targets. The carbon footprint from the electrical sector has rapidly been improving.  British Columbia gets most of its electricity from hydroelectricity, but Colorado ski towns—even Aspen—remain tied at the hip to coal-fired plants for their electricity. Such plants are now being closed in droves across North America and remaining plants, if still operational, used far less as the economics of renewables become better and better. If the economics of energy storage improve substantially, even natural gas combustion can be curbed.

Transportation in 2015 overtook electrical production as the leading cause of emissions. But electrification of transportation can ratchet down transport GHGs. Some experts predict six-fold increase in sales of electric vehicles during the next 5 years in the United States. It’s not just Tesla. General Motors plans to end its production of internal-combustion engines in the next few years. With thoughtful time-of-use charging rates, fueling of EVs can be paired efficiently with renewable generation.

In August, the Economist magazine proclaimed the imminent demise of the internal-combustion engine. For the sake of the planet, it can’t come soon enough.

And not least, major businesses and hundreds of cities across North America have now embraced significant climate goals, as Whistler and Aspen did more than a decade ago. The argument can be made that this enlarged movement can help bring ski towns closer to their targets.

They’ve done much

In Aspen, buildings are responsible for 56 percent of the community carbon shadow. (residential 31 percent, commercial 25 percent). Ground transportation follows at 19 percent, the airport and airplanes at 15 percent, and the landfill 11 percent.

Aspen’s new climate action plan identifies 76 actions across six sectors that can be launched during the next three years. None looks easy or simple. No one, two or three things will get Aspen or any other community to its goals.

In Whistler, transportation—mostly from personal vehicles—is responsible for 56 percent of GHGs, followed by natural gas consumption—presumably to heat buildings—at 34 percent.

Whistler has done much and plans more. Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden lays out the municipality’s took kit: “We have a very good transit system here, but we can improve it. We are doing that with an extended bus schedule this winter.”

A new program allows up to three children to take the bus if accompanied by a fare-paying adult. During summer, transit was free on weekends and holidays. For local employees, cost of bus fares has been further reduced. There’s more of her list—and more coming.

Arthur De Jong of Whistler Blackcomb talks with home-builder Matheo Dürfeld at a passive house under construction in Whistler. Photo/Allen Best

These programs have twin parents. They seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says Wilhelm-Morden, but they also seek to reduce traffic congestion. “We wanted to encourage people to get out of their cars, thereby reducing both congestion and GHGs.”

As for buildings, which are responsible for 34 percent of GHGs, she sees further gains coming in the province-wide BC Energy Step Code. Whistler may push harder than the provincial code requires. “We will be looking at ways to elevate it in serious detail in 2018,” she says.

Waste diversion is another strategy with twin drivers. As Whistlers’ garbage is hauled all the way to a landfill along the Columbia River Gorge in Washington state, there’s expense in the transportation. But if organic waste can be removed, there’s also a reduction in greenhouse gases. A law recently adopted expands diversion requirements to all commercial and strata buildings.

Wilhelm-Morden describes emissions reductions as a “critical issue for us, of course, because we are at risk as a destination. We need to have stable snow and whether patterns, so everybody has a vested interest in doing what they can to achieve reductions in GHGs and reduced energy consumption.”

An ironic motivation for action

Arthur De Jong, who oversees sustainability efforts on behalf of Vail Resorts at Whistler Blackcomb, suggests that there may be ironic hope as a result of the presidency of Donald Trump. Trump wants to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, but that push has activated businesses and local governments to push back.

“We are not getting the job done—yet. But I believe the motivation is now there that never existed before,” he says.

De Jong also contends that decarbonizing energy will also provide valuable health-care benefits, particularly in cities, where about 70 percent of the world’s population lives. “There’s a very pragmatic health-care need to resolve,” he says.

In Aspen, Menges makes much the same point. Most of the measures that reduce GHG emissions will also enhance quality of life for Aspen residents, he says.

McKibben, not one to smile without good cause, puts a grimace on the ending of his Rolling Stone essay by paraphrasing Martin Luther King’s famous quote about the long arc of the universe bending toward justice. That may work for political fights, says McKibben, but not for climate change.

“The arc of the physical universe appears to be short, and it bends toward heat,” he writes. “Win soon or suffer the consequences.”

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Marrying electrical utilities and electrified transportation

Why Colorado utilities should gear up for transportation electrification

by Allen Best

Electric cars constitute disruptive technology. By one estimate, sales will increase almost six-fold nationally during the next five years. Another study foretells that 10 percent of all cars nationally will be plug-in hybrid or all-electric vehicles by 2025.

Instead of driving up to gas pumps at Shell and other stations, we’ll be fueling up with electricity. This represents increased demand for utilities, a sector that has seen little or no growth in recent years because of improved energy efficiency. For governments that have set aggressive goals for reduction of greenhouse gases, it represents an opportunity to pair up electrified transportation with low-cost renewables, shrinking the carbon footprint in the process.

Where does the Colorado Public Utilities come into this? That was the essential questions asked by PUC commissioners recently as they heard testimony from a dozen speakers.

Jeffrey Ackermann

The intent when inviting their comments, said Jeffrey Ackermann, the chairman of the PUC, was to get a feel for what constitutes “reasonable expectations of utilities.”

The goal is to “see where the market is going and work with the momentum that is already out there,” said Ackermann.

Speakers at the Dec. 8 information meeting repeatedly told the PUC commissioners the same thing: You do have a larger role in this business and technology transformation, not less. Many also spoke about the imminence of autonomous vehicles, such as has been the focal work of another Coloradan, Rutt Bridges.

Chris Nelder, manager of vehicle-grid integration for the Rocky Mountain Institute, described the transition as potentially a problem, but also a benefit. “It’s not something we can sleep on,” he said.

Nelder and other speakers called for the PUC to help ensure that sufficient charging stations are provided by utilities. He and others also called for utility rate schedules that encourage EV-charging in ways that maximize use of low-cost renewable energy.

Widespread adoption of EVs will be good for utility ratepayers altogether, commissioners were told. The significant increase in demand will occur mostly during off-peak periods, causing a downward pressure on electrical rates that benefit all ratepayers.

The commissioners also heard that air quality and greenhouse gas reduction efforts will be aided by more rapid adoption of EVs. Instead of burning gasoline and diesel, EVs will be fueled by electricity, increasingly so from renewable sources. In that way, air quality will be improved.

Will Toor, transportation manager for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said that driving an EV today in areas serviced by Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, is the equivalent of driving an internal-combustion car that gets 48 miles per gallon, in terms of its air quality benefits. By 2025, as Xcel further cleans up its electricity, that same car will be getting the equivalent of 75 mpg in terms of air quality benefits.

Shifting to electrified transportation can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2015, transportation overtook electrical production as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Nelder, drawing heavily from the Rocky Mountain Institute’s October 2017 report, “Gas to Grid,” which he co-wrote, said that getting people to buy EVs isn’t the main problem anymore. “The EVs are coming—and fast,” he said. Range anxiety has diminished as new models are capable of traveling 200 miles or more on a single charge. You can even buy a Tesla with 600-mile range, but at a cost: $250,000.

But even more bottom-shelf models are getting extended miles even as prices drop. In June, Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicted price parity between EVs and traditional internal-combustion engines by 2025.

EV owners in Colorado are currently clustered along the Front Range, as is the population altogether. But there are small clusters on the Western Slope, mostly clearly in the Aspen-Glenwood Springs area.

Despite this strong market momentum, speakers testified that the state-regulated utilities have a role in accelerating the transition.

So does Colorado. Gov. John Hickenlooper, in an executive order issued July 11, specified a 2025 goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions statewide by more than 26 percent. He asked for a plan by Jan. 1 to “build out key charging corridors that will facilitate economic development and boost tourism across the state while reducing harmful air pollution.”

Colorado intends to use $10 million of its $68.5 million in proceeds from the Volkswagen emissions settlement for charging stations along interstate highways.

Should utilities take part in this installation of charging stations beyond this program? Speakers repeatedly said yes.

More than 80 percent of charging is expected to be at home. However, public charging plays a role, too. That’s why Tesla several years ago began installing charging stations in sometimes out–of-the-way places, to give comfort to owners of Tesla’s electric cars that they could get across North America and back again.

Visitors can recharge their internal batteries at the Devil’s Thumb Ranch near Tabernash, Colo., while recharging their Teslas. Photo/Allen Best

Studies have shown that somebody with charging infrastructure at a workplace is six times more likely to buy an electric car.

While any electrical outlet can charge an EV, more rapid fueling occurs with Level 2 chargers. Faster yet are direct-current fast-chargers, called DCFC. Colorado next year is expected to have 87 of them, but if this rapid growth occurs, within 15 years it will need 3,239. The slower, level-2 chargers will need to grow from almost 23,000 next year to 842,000.

These are apples and oranges in cost, too. Level 2 chargers can be had for $500, but a high-speed charger can cost up to $500,000. With that much invested, they need high rates of use.

“It’s all about utilization, utilization, utilization,” said Jonathan Levy, director of policy and strategy for Vision Ridge Partners, a Boulder-based equity and venture capital fund that specializes in the sustainability sector.

The agency has direct responsibility for regulation of the state’s two investor-owned utilities, Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy, which together provide electricity for between 60 and 70 percent of Coloradans, and also the transmission planning by Tri-State Generation & Transmission. The agency has no authority in regulating the mostly rural electrical co-operatives or the municipal providers, such as Colorado Sprigns Utilities.

Nelder said the PUC might allow Xcel and Black Hills higher rates of return if they can figure out how to get high use of the high-speed chargers. He said chargers placed along major highways get higher use than those in cities.

That same point was made by SWEEP’s Toor. He pointed to a study that found the operating cost for a high-speed charger located along a major highway was $10,000 a year, compared to $39,163 for those in urban areas.

He also pointed to the need for charging infrastructure in multi-family housing. In Colorado, 24 percent of people live in multi-family housing. In Denver, it’s closer to 40 percent, he said. That’s challenging on the face of it, and lower-income housing introduces a social-equity issue. He suggested this is where PUC commissioners should nudge utilities into providing charging stations.

That same point was made by Liz Babcock, manager of air, water and climate for the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. She said Denver plans to invest $250,000 in charging infrastructure. But she said it was “critical” that incentives be given Xcel Energy to install charging stations in multi-family housing projects.

Denver, she said, has a goal of attaining 100 percent carbon-free energy for public transportation by 2050.

To push vehicle electrification, the city introduced a public messaging campaign to drive electrify vehicles. It’s called Pass Gas Denver. “Kind of cheeky,” said Babcock.

A different kind of social justice issue is how more rural areas can have access to charging infrastructure.

Christian Willis, director of transportation fuels & technology for the Colorado Energy Office, said another question is how to incentivize charging infrastructure along Colorado’s secondary highways, which don’t get as much traffic.

The sheer bulk of vehicle electrification may strain existing utility infrastructure in times and places. Nelder pointed to the effort to develop next-generration solid-state batteries. Toyota says it will deliver these to market within two years. Nelder reported potential for major charging, such as at facilities handling electric buses, causing demand to surge. “Ten to 15 megawatts at a single charging location? That’s not trivial,” said Nelder.

At the pace of adoption that the Rocky Mountain Institute foresees, Colorado will need 37 times as many charging stations in 15 years, said Nelder.

That adoption rate will also cause electrical demand for cars in Colorado to grow from 23 megawatts in 2018 to 849 megawatts in 2033. That’s the load equivalent to Xcel’s largest single electrical sources, such as major coal plants or giant wind farms.

Rate structures that encourage electric car owners to use low-cost electricity at non-peak times, called time-of-use rates, is another area where the PUC may work with utilities.

California utilities have adopted policies that encourage charing of EVs during non-peak times. Slide/SWEEP

“You all control rate design, and rate design is crucial to adoption of electrified transportation,” said Max Baumhefner, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group

Thad Kurowski, from Tesla, echoed that argument, calling for time-of-use rate structures that encourage charging of car batteries when electricity is cheapest.

As for Xcel Energy, it’s not publicly advocating anything, said Jack Ihle, director of regulatory and strategic analysis for the Public Service Co. of Colorado, the Xcel subsidiary. “Our customers and communities are asking for help to do this; we are excited about the opportunity to electrify transportation.”

Colorado won’t necessarily have to invent this electrified wheel. California, said Nelder, is the leader,” far and away. They are hacking through the jungles and clearing the path for everyone else to follow.”

Frances Koncilja

The PUC already has some authority to move into this new arena of electrified transportation, said Ackermann. Another commissioner, Frances Koncilja, suggested the commission may need legislative guidance.

The PUC has scheduled no next steps in this discussion about electrified transportation. The commission uses such information meetings as educational opportunities, but not necessarily as a stepping stone to further action, says Terry Bote, external affairs manager for the PUC. “As far as I am aware, there are no plans to issue a position paper.”

Also worth reading: the New York Times report, “What Needs to Happen Before Electric Cars Take over the World.”

PowerPoints of speakers at the PUC hearing can be found here.

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Bustang bus service picking up ridership in Colorado

A Bustang heading toward Vail launches from the Denver Bus Station at mid-afternoon.

Third daily Bustang added as demand from I-70 mountain towns stays strong

by Allen Best

FRISCO, Colo. – In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that city buses were “in a state of steady decline.” That may be true in most cities, but a bus service in Colorado called Bustang, which was launched in 2015 along urbanized interstate corridors, has been steadily adding new riders.

Just yesterday, a daily bus was added between Glenwood Springs and Denver for the duration of winter. Geared for need of mountain town residents, Bustang sends two buses each morning, now two from Glenwood and one  from Vail, stopping in towns along the way, reaching  Denver’s Union Station, the nerve center for mass transit in metropolitan Denver and along the Front Range.

In the afternoon and evening, the two buses reverse course.

The success of the bus routes are part of an evolving approach to transportation in Colorado, one that recognizes limits to the building of transportation infrastructure for individual cars.

“It’s becoming clear to everyone that just building ourselves out of congestion is not an option,” says Andy Karsian, legislative liaison for the Colroado Department of Transportation. Bustang bus routes represent a “multi-faceted approach” that seeks to provide state-wide connectivity, he says.

Feeder routes into the bus service along the interstates are being planned.

Bustangs along I-70 consistently have around 90 riders a day, seven days a week, although it can surge to 150 riders daily during winter. This compares against a maximum 204 seats daily.

Other Bustangs operate between Denver and Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. Unlike those from the mountains, which are geared to the needs of mountain residents, the Front Range buses operate greater bidirectional schedules. There are buses that depart each morning from Denver, but also buses that depart from Fort Collins and Colorado Springs to Denver.

Buses along the I-25 corridor are more frequent than those on the I-70 corridor. Riders have 14 one-way trips available between Fort Collins and Denver, compared to the four between Denver and mountain communities.

Michael E. Timlin, the bus operations manager for C-DOT, reports that all routes have enjoyed ridership increases. Total bus ridership between Denver and Fort Collins, for example, has quadrupled in two years. But the I-70 Bustangs boast higher ridership per bus, about 36 riders per bus, compared to 8 riders for the buses along I-25.

In March 2017, with heavy traffic on I-70, the buses handled 4,018 passengers, compared to 5,656 for those north from Denver and 5,336 for those south from Denver.

If skiing explains the surge in winter transit, Timlin also credits a high-level of bus ridership that already exists in mountain valleys along I-70. “They’re very transit savvy up there,” he says while pointing out that RFTA, the Aspen-Glenwood bus agency, is the second largest non-urban bus system in the country.

Bus service almost universally requires subsidies, and these are no exception. At the front end was $10.9 million in state funds that came out of 2009 legislation that created a surcharge on auto registrations. The buses along I-70 and I-25 require an annual $3 million subsidy. The added taxes came in the wake of a bridge collapse in Minneapolis and a realization that Colorado’s highway infrastructure had its own safety risks. A small portion of the $200 million in annual revenues was carved out for bus transportation.

If $3 million is guaranteed for operations, expansion of service can be justified only through fare-box recovery. Last year, Bustang took in $1.6 million in revenue, a 53 percent increase over its inaugural year.

Higher levels of comfort and convenience may well explain the success of the buses. These are not your old yellow school buses, nor even a long-haul Greyhound. All of the 51-passenger buses have restrooms, bike racks, and then connections for the digital age: WiFi, 110v outlets, and USB ports.

Who is riding the buses? Timlin points to familiar suspects: baby boomers, now diminishing in their bulk, yet still carrying demographic clout, but also millennials, less inclined than their elders to own cars. That trend, noted some years ago, seems to be carrying forward even as they get older.

“They’re trying to find different avenues than sitting in cars (in congestion), getting frustrated. On the bus, they can take a nap, they can play on a computer, they can watch a movie, they can take back their lives.”

Ken Neubecker occasionally boards the Bustang in Glenwood Springs for trips to Denver. He’s Colorado operations manager for American Rivers, a water advocacy group. The group’s Colorado headquarters is two blocks from Union Station, the Denver terminus for the buses. Other trips require him taking the 16th Street shuttle to state and other offices in the area of the Colorado capital.

Still other times, he has taken the Bustang to Denver and then taken the A-Line train to Denver International Airport.

“I think it’s great,” he says. “It does take longer than driving, but as long as I’m not driving I can make phone calls, I can use the WiFi and my computer, and there’s plenty of leg room,” he says. Too, Bustangs have restrooms—handy, if traffic bogs down in a storm.

Buoyed by the success of Bustang, the Colorado Department of Transportation is now considering expansion from its trunk lines into rural areas. These will be working with local transportation providers and using federal funds. Timlin calls this the “son of Bustang” or, more cumbersomely, rural regional Bustang outrider service.

One new service in the Arkansas Valley will begin daily service in January between Lamar and Pueblo, while another Alamosa-Salida-Pueblo route is scheduled to begin May 1, while a Gunnison-Denver shuttle is to begin in July.

Bustang service replacing the Greyhound service between Grand Junction and Denver is to begin in July along with a bus between Durango and Grand Junction.

If money remains available after that, another option is to extend a line from Frisco to Kremmling and north to Steamboat Springs.

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