How Park City millennials pushed officials to embrace carbon goals
by Allen Best
In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, on the buses of Montgomery, the lunch counters of South Carolina and on the bridge at Selma, it was younger people who forced the issue. So, too, is the case in Park City’s adoption of what may be the nation’s most ambitious carbon-reduction goal.
Andy Beerman, the mayor-elect of Park City, says millennials who met with him wanted to step up the pace. He told them to educate themselves, get organized, then show up at city council meetings—repeatedly. They did. He began calling them the Carbon Army, a name they have embraced.
“They were mostly a bunch of 20- and 30-somethings, many of whom had grown up in Park City, and they would show up with their children and say, ‘You guys got to enjoy the snowpack, and we want to enjoy it. You guys need to start showing leadership in energy and renewable energy and climate.’”
After several months, the council—Beerman was a member then—did just that. The resolutions, approved unanimously, call for carbon neutrality in municipal operations by 2022 and community wide carbon neutrality by 2032. This may be the most ambitious carbon-reduction goal in the country.
This is uncharted territory in Park City and elsewhere. The path to achieve these goals is not at all clear.
Before the Carbon Army arrived at city council meetings to plead and cajole, climate change had been an issue of strong interest but wavering commitment in Park City.
In 2007, just a year after Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, 1,500 people showed up to hear a scientist from Colorado talk about the effects of the warming climate on Park City. It was followed by events sponsored by Save Our Snow, an activist group.
Beerman and his wife, Thea Leonard, who then operated a hotel, invested in their business to make it net-zero.
The city committed to “green up” new public buildings, but when projects inevitably went over budget, solar panels and other energy efficiencies got “value engineered” out of plans for a new library, recreation center, ice rink, and water-treatment plant.
By around 2014, a vigorous economy had returned, restoring money for those omitted solar panels. That same year, the Georgetown University Energy Prize was announced, offering $5 million for demonstrable, replicable efforts in energy efficiency.
Now, that prize money seems to have disappeared and, in any event, Park City was not among the finalists (nor was any other ski town). Still, Beerman thinks that the Georgetown prize was valuable in galvanizing community effort. In that effort, Park City got serious about wringing out inefficiencies from its energy-intensive water system, a major consumer of electricity. An energy fee was added to water bills, recognizing explicitly the cost of moving water around as well as treating it. Old, inefficient pumps were replaced.
Soon after, the younger activists started showing up. Prominent among them was a young couple, Bryn and Jackie Carey, who own a business in Park City called Ski Butlers. They had gone through the training of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. They also obtained support from the Alpine Collective, a resort town activist group.
“It was one of those topics that was ripe, and having the Carbon Army show up and push us elevated it in our eyes,” says Beerman. He says he felt passionate about this himself, but it was not a case he could make by himself. “This group carried it across the finish line with our council.”
Electricity might be the easiest hurdle, as Rocky Mountain Power has indicated willingness to work with Park City, Moab, and other jurisdictions that want to attain 100 percent renewable goals. A pathway may be evident in transportation, particularly since General Motors announced plans to pursue an all-electric lineup of cars during the next decade.
The built environment remains a major source of energy consumption and a more daunting challenge. Park City has many heated driveways and large houses. Beerman says that Park City is investigating incentives for buildings to pare back need for carbon energy. Most buildings are heated by natural gas. But the city is approaching this “very carefully,” because Utah law does not allow cities generally to be more restrictive than state codes. “This limits our ability to require green building, forcing us to get creative with partnerships, incentives and education,” says Beerman.
If Park City now veers strongly Democratic in its voting patterns, Park City officials are careful in how they phrase their ambitions. They refer to renewable energy goals, not climate goals.
“I don’t think that, by and large, the over-40 crowd is concerned about climate change,” says Beerman, 49, who is originally from Columbus, Ohio. “Maybe the millennials understand the scope of it better. Certainly, they will have to deal with the consequences.”
What is it about Park City that it adopted this goal and not, for example, Steamboat Springs? The two are both located along the same Highway 40, are of somewhat comparable size and demographics.
Beerman suspects that Steamboat Springs—and other ski towns—will be close on Park City’s heels. “Frustration with the dysfunction of the federal government is inspiring cities and towns to take action,” he says. “It’s the ground-up movement that will fuel meaningful action on climate change.”
Many local elected officials, he adds, are feeling: “This is on us; no one’s going to come save us.’”