County officials take on coal mine methane

West Elk Mine. Photo/WildEarth Guardians

What will it take to stop methane emissions from Colorado mines?

GUNNISON, Colo. – This is where the rubber meets the road on climate change action. Gunnison County commissioners are taking a hard look at a proposed coal-mine expansion but particularly the methane emissions from the mine.

The West Elk Mine is located in a corner of Gunnison County 37 miles from Crested Butte, but across Kebler Pass.

It’s the only mine still operating at Somerset, located in the North Fork Valley. The mine operator, Arch Coal, has been on shaky ground. It dipped into bankruptcy last year but emerged in October. The Crested Butte News describes St. Louis-based Arch as “holding on by its fingernails to stay in business for a few more years.”

In Gunnison County, Arch still has 220 employees making about $100,000 a year. The company wants to expand existing leases of coal under the national forest by 1,720 acres. There’s no guarantee they’ll find coal there, but they want to make sure they’re not overlooking it.

Two of the three commissioners agree that the most pressing issue from their perspective is the need to capture methane coming from the mine. Methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas that has 72 times as much heat-trapping capacity over a 20-year period than the far more common carbon dioxide.

The West Elk alone is responsible for 0.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado, according to the calculations of Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represents various groups that oppose the mine expansion. The North Fork mines are said to be among the gassiest in the world.

Arch Coal wants to pay a 5 percent royalty, instead of the normal 7 percent, for any coal that comes out of the new area, called the E-seam. The justification is the higher costs of extraction due to the different, more difficult geology. The royalties help support local schools and re-training for laid-off workers.

Would Arch work with the county on better methane capture? According to the Crested Butte News account, a company representative said capturing methane from an operating mine is a “different animal” than capturing it from a mine that has closed. But one of the commissioners countered that the technology exists and should be used.

After a recent  meeting, the Crested Butte News reported that two commissioners, Jonathan Houck and John Messner, were  firm that Gunnison County has a role in doing what it can to reduce greenhouse gases.

“In this last election, John and I heard constant discussion about coal and climate change. These are issues that resonate with our community,” Houck said.

But Phil Chamberland says he disagrees that a majority of the community is concerned about climate change.

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Kit Carson’s answer for hardscrabble rural America

Is Kit Carson’s renewable goal also the answer to rural America’s woes?

by Allen Best

Taos, the resort community in New Mexico, is not hardscrabble in the way of so much of rural America. Billionaire Louis Bacon has been plowing money into the Taos Ski Valley, one of four ski areas in the area. Julia Roberts lives in Taos when not working somewhere. And it has 60 art galleries, a reflection of the playful light in high, desert landscape that has drawn artists and writers since Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and D.H. Lawrence.

Now, Taos is seeking to get creative with its energy systems. Last year Kit Carson Electric, the cooperative that serves 31,000 customers in Taos and three adjoining counties, ended its contract with its long-time wholesale supplier of electricity. That supplier, Tri-State Generation & Transmission, delivers electricity to 43 member co-ops across four states, including those that serve Durango, Telluride, Crested Butte, and Winter Park. About a quarter of that electricity comes from the big hydro dams of the West, but Tri-State remains strongly invested in coal-fired power plants. It long resisted the shift to renewables. Just too expensive for rural America, it has argued.

Kit Carson disagrees. It maintains that rural American can’t afford the steady price increases that have come from coal-fired power plants. Working with a new wholesale supplier, Guzman Energy, Kit Carson plans to install 6 to 7 megawatts of solar generation this summer around Taos, with a goal of generating up to 30 megawatts by 2022. That would be enough to meet peak day-time demand.

This is the path forward for rural America, say officials with Kit Carson. It’s like the standard Chamber of Commerce shop-at-home campaign, but instead of shirts and groceries, it’s electricity. They preach the value of job generation of local renewable energy, a way to shore up the fraying economies of rural areas. If Taos itself has polished shoes, surrounding areas look like much of rural America, distressed and worn.

A decade ago, this make-your-own-electricity argument might have seemed obscure, like home-brewing. Nice, if you have time. But prices of renewables have been tumbling so rapidly that they have become the low-cost choice for new generation. Wind prices have fallen most significantly, but solar is rapidly becoming affordable. From $12 per kilowatt-hour in the late 1990s, the price for solar-plus has dropped to just 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour a deal announced by Tucson Electric this past week.

Taos and a few other renegade co-ops offer a striking example of disruption in a utility sector that was long sluggish if not resistant to change. Instead of behemoths of coal-fired power to supply broad areas, the new model being created is of localized generation, especially renewables, backed by natural gas and storage.

If the disruption is not yet complete, with much remaining to be proven, the looming question posed by Kit Carson to other utilities is this: can they afford to stick to the past.

Creation of electrical co-ops

Taos has a history of unruliness. It has a pueblo that has been continuously occupied since before Columbus. Even today, about 8 percent of Taoseños are Native American. More than half are Hispanic. The first Spanish arrived in 1540 when a contingent accompanying the explorer, Coronado, in search of seven cities of gold and gems called Quivira, traveled through the Taos Valley.

Spanish rule ensued, and the Pueblo Indians accepted it, more or less, but revolted in 1680. The mutiny lingered until 1696.

Again in 1847 significant blood was shed when the United States, after defeating Mexico, installed Charles Bent as the new territorial governor. He was scalped and killed by Pueblo warriors during another revolt. Josefa, the third and final wife of Kit Carson, the former mountain man and guide, escaped harm by hiding.

Writers and artists came in the 20th century, but they worked by gaslight or candlelight. Investor-owned utilities had been slow to extend lines to rural areas. In a New Deal program, Congress in 1936 created the model of self-governance for co-operatives and extended low-cost loans for rural electrification. Today, the nation’s 800 co-ops deliver 11 percent of the nation’s electricity but geographically serve more than 80 percent of the country.

Bigger is better. That was the mantra for power production for much of the 20th century. From the 1950s into the early 1980s, most of this new production was delivered by coal. Economic growth correlated with increased electrical production.

Amory Lovins, in a 1976 essay published in the journal “Foreign Affairs,” famously argued that it didn’t need to be that way. Pounding the drum even then for renewables, Lovins also made the case for what he called the energy soft path. Efficiency, he said, could increase productivity.

But a task force convened by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001 came to the swift conclusion that robust growth in demand would require up to 400 new power plants. Especially coal plants.

Tri-State got that memo. In 2006, it announced it needed to build another power plant, this time in southwestern Kansas in conjunction with Sunlight Electric Power, a Kansas wholesaler. The plant along the Arkansas River was to be able to generate 900 megawatts. But Tri-State got pushback from two of its co-ops when it asked them to extend their contracts to 2050. Kit Carson and Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric refused.

That power plant has never been built. The administration of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, in 2007 denied a permit. Finally, in mid-March 2017, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the project could go forward.

But with demand growth slowed and prices of renewables tumbling, the coal plant appears unlikely to be built. As of several years ago, Tri-State had sunk at least $70 million into the project, including water and land.

Tri-State’s existing coal fleet is also under fire. It has agreed to close two plants in Colorado—a small often-idled plant at Nucla and the other, one of its three units at Craig—because of violations of air-quality regulations. It has also been raising its rates, 4 to 5 percent a year.

Directors of Kit Carson Electric maintain that, in the relatively near term, they will deliver 100 percent renewables at lower prices. That’s a bold claim. That it’s being taken seriously suggests just how rapidly the world of energy is changing.

A different energy vision

Bob Bresnahan got to Taos in 2000 after a career that most prominently included work at the Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. He had climbed mountains in the Pacific Northwest and got a degree in computer science that blossomed into a job as “chief architect” of communication standards for the new manufacturer of shoes. At Nike, he stayed on to help form a division that within six years gained $300 million in annual revenues.

Moving to Taos, he purchased a furniture business and began making chairs and tables. But in 2003, he started paying attention to the evidence emerging about the risk of climate change.

“The science was always pretty clear to me. I never had much doubt about it,” he says.

He also read a new book by Jared Diamond called “Collapse.” The chapter he found most compelling was centered on Montana’s Bitterroot Valley and the documented decline of the natural environment. “It struck me that this is Taos and the Southwest also.”

In 2010, even as much of the nation slowly emerged from recession, the world of renewables had begun to shine. With another retiree, John Gusdorf, who had done energy work for the Canadian government, he formed a non-profit advocacy group called Renewable Taos.

“Both of us were deeply alarmed by global warming, but we decided that we didn’t want to focus any of our energies on educating people about global warming, because people seemed so resistant to that.”

Instead, they wanted to cut to the chase: find solutions.

“I mean not just on the electric grid, but also on the transportation and home heating and so forth,” says Bresnahan.

A study of total energy use in Taos County found 40 percent was electricity, 40 percent gasoline, 10 percent propane, and 10 percent natural gas. Virtually all of this energy is imported into Taos County, at a cost of $80 million annually. The three adjoining three counties supplied by Kit Carson Electric pay another $20 million.

With this big picture, Renewable Taos arranged a meeting in 2010 with Luis Reyes, the general manager for Kit Carson Electric. The meeting was scheduled to last 15 to 30 minutes. It was nearly three hours before they wrapped up.

There was one key problem with their vision, Reyes explained to them. Kit Carson, if it had declined the Tri-State contract extension, still had a 30-year contract that specified it would get 95 percent of its electricity from Tri-State. In 2016, Kit Carson got its divorce, at a cost of $36 million, but believes the shift to a new energy model will ultimately save co-op members $50 million.

That exit fee would make most people get squeamish. But Bresnahan was in the computer world when Moore’s law—that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles every two years—was being proven. Typewriters were becoming odd-looking devices of no apparent value.

“If you are locked into a business model that is structured on old technolo

Bob Bresnahan

gy, you can’t take advantage of those (low-priced) costs (of renewable energy),” says Bresnahan, who is now a member of the board of directors of Kit Carson. “You need a business model innovation to allow you to take advantage of the new technology.”

Bresnahan and his wife live at the end of a road at an elevation of 8,700 feet outside Taos. The last two miles of the road are unpaved, but he still has fiber-optic, courtesy of Kit Carson Electric. The co-op has a fiber-optic division, which has been controversial but one that Bresnahan insists will be highly successful. He has the same confidence about the transition to renewables.

“Our innovation may not be the model for every other coop, but it is one model for making this radical transition, and it’s already proven itself to be successful.”

He calls the Kit Carson switch a “revolution of one,” and adds this: “When all the other (co-ops) see this happening, what do you think will happen?”

In renewables, Bresnahan sees a transition no less dramatic than the shift from mainframe computers to microcomputers several decades ago. Soon, he believes, it will also happen with electric vehicles. He also foresees electricity replacing natural and propane gases for home heating. California has a similar goal.

Strengthening rural economies

The immediate goal is to develop up to 30 megawatts of solar around Taos, but also purchase wind-generated electricity from farms in eastern New Mexico. Work on installation of six to seven megawatts of solar generating capacity began with ground-breaking in April. Space at the solar farms is being allocated for energy storage.

Kit Carson’s quest for 100 percent renewables may be aided by actions in California. The California General Assembly in 2010 ordered the state’s three big investor-owned utilities to add 1.3 gigawatts of energy storage to the grid there by 2020. The answers may arrive just in time for Kit Carson to achieve its aspirational goal by 2022.

Rural America in the last presidential election overwhelming voted for Donald Trump to be president. In some areas of co-op country, such as eastern Colorado, more than 80 percent of votes went to Trump, even after his very unconservative boasts about groping women became available on every TV set and computer in the country.

Northern New Mexico didn’t fit the pattern. There, the Hispanic population, if conservative, too, votes Democratic, and this last election was no exception: it went for Clinton.

But Luis Reyes, the long-time manager of Kit Carson Electric, says get very far outside Taos and the economic profile is very similar to other rural areas.

“Taos lacks jobs,” says Reyes, who grew up in Taos, the son of a carpenter, and became an engineer before joining Kit Carson in 1983. “The unemployment rate in rural areas is high, but it’s much worse than the official rate. At some point, people give up hope and quit looking,” he says.

“The locals are living outside town because it has become too expensive. What we are trying to do with renewable energy economics is to create jobs. The economic development aspect of this project is very, very important. Coops should be creating economic development opportunities to keep jobs in our rural areas. If we don’t have people who live here, we don’t need energy.”

What Kit Carson has set out to do, he says, other co-ops must also do.

Luis Reyes

“We are on the cutting edge of what co-ops should be in the sense of having more control over their power supply and embracing the many technologies that will stabilize rates and give customers choice. Taos is not that much different than other coops in Colorado or Tennessee. (Customers) want affordable rates, they want accountability, and they want choice.”

After its exit from Tri-State, Kit Carson linked with a Florida-based aggregator of energy sources called Guzman Energy. Representing Guzman is Chris Riley, who has an ironic background for this shift to renewables. He’s from the coal country of Utah, and like his father and grandfather, he might have worked in the mines, too. Instead, after graduating from high school on a Friday night in Castle Dale, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Monday morning.

With that, he left those small towns of east-central Utah with their history of tragedies—including a mine fire that killed 27 people when he was growing up and, more recently, in 2007, a cave-in that resulted in 7 deaths.

Riley went on to study nuclear power in Florida, undergraduate study at the U.S. Naval Academy, then the Harvard Business School. At Harvard he learned how to identify market inefficiencies and market disruptions.

Joining with Cuban-born Leo Guzman, a financier with energy-related experience at Chase Manhattan Bank and Lazard Fréres, Riley has focused on how to disrupt the electrical market.

“This is an industry that has operated largely in the same way since the electrification of the United States—and then boom, we had the shale gas revolution, then renewable energy came out of nowhere to be a very significant part of the grid,” says Riley. “Leo saw an opportunity to take advantage of this change.”

In the deal struck with Kit Carson last year, Guzman will provide the wholesale supply to Kit Carson for up to 10 years.

Unlike rising costs for fossil fuels, Riley and Kit Carson argue that this shift to renewables can also benefit the local economy by providing price transparency. Prices won’t rise, they say. That gives businesses an incentive to invest in the local community as compared to other locations, knowing that energy costs will remain fixed for a decade or more.

“They will know what their price will be in the future,” says Riley.

Riley makes no secret of his company’s ambition to start picking up other rural electrical providers and municipalities.

“Anywhere we can come and provide lower rates, clean energy and price visibility,” says Riley. Last year, it delivered a one-megawatt solar farm to Aztec, a town of 1,000 on the edge of the San Juan oil-and-gas basin in northwestern New Mexico.

Renewable Taos sees a 100 percent renewable portfolio for Kit Carson Electric as a first step. With its higher elevation, abundant sunshine, and low humidity, it has strong solar intensity, what is called insolation. Renewable Taos foresees Taos producing 200 megawatts of electricity for export to metropolitan areas.

Accelerating changes in utility world

This may all sound faintly fairylandish and distant, like the geodesic domes and communes that sprouted in the early 1970s. Neither became common.

But other landmark changes have been swift and deep. Most vivid have been the changes in telephony. In 1985, for example, Grand County, located at the headwaters of the Colorado River, still had five separate telephone exchanges, and they were all long-distance calls from one another at 30 cents a minute. It was long-distance from Granby to Grand Lake 16 miles away, long-distance to Winter Park 16 miles in the other direction, long-distance to Hot Sulphur Springs 11 miles away.

Then, accelerated by the breakup of the Bell monopolies, the telecommunications industry changed rapidly. By 2006, just 21 years later, the first smartphones arrived. Now, all the world and all of the Internet is available in your average teenager’s hip pocket.

We’re just starting to see similarly radical changes in the world of utilities. From Marin County in California to the empire-sized experiment now underway in New York state, our energy systems are being recalculated. The utility of the past, with its business model predicated on selling electrons created in large, central power plants is most assuredly not the utility of the future. Future utilities will offer cleaner energy and focus on energy services, not raw electrons. As Lovins observed long ago from his Aspen-area base, you care only whether your beer is cold, not how much electricity you get.

Kit Carson seeks to be at the front edge of the fast-changing utility world. If it delivers answers to what bedevils the rest of rural America, it may become known at least as much for its business innovation as for its artists.

This was originally published on June 8 in Mountain Town News, a weekly e-zine delivered to subscribers. Subscriptions are  $45 a year. 

 

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The interesting and interested life of Vail’s Bob Parker

Bob Parker, a man of many seasons, was crucial in Vail’s early successes

A poet published in New Yorker and archaeologist, too

by Allen Best

Robert Ward Parker, a veteran of the famed 10th Mountain Division who returned to Colorado to become an integral figure in the post-World War II ski industry, died June 29 in Grand Junction, Colo. He was 94.

Much of his life was involved with skiing, from his childhood in New York and Wisconsin to training for mountain warfare in the Alps. Later, after working as a mountain guide and a ski journalist, he helped create the Vail ski area.

Bob Parker, around the time of the Beaver Creek opening in 1980. Photo/Jill Vig

At Vail, which opened in 1962, his marketing efforts to draw the world’s attention were so successful that only a decade later it was the favored mountain resort for Gerald Ford even before he became the U.S. president. Parker also helped create a second ski area, Beaver Creek during a time of increasing environmental scrutiny.

If his greatest accomplishments were in skiing, he led a life so diverse that his poetry was published in the New Yorker and later in life he pursued a master’s degree in archaeology.

Parker first skied as an 11-year-old in Rochester, N.Y., using boots strapped to skis, the technology of the time. Three years later, in Wisconsin, he used the first toe-iron, heel- strap bindings, similar to those used today by telemark skiers. Safety release bindings didn’t come until much later. The following year, in 1938, he rode a ski lift for the first time, at Rib Mountain, Wis.

When the United States entered World War II, Parker was a freshman at St. Lawrence College (now University), where he was on the ski team. He had aspired to become a member of the National Ski Patrol, but instead enlisted in the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment at Fort Lewis, Wash. The regiment became part of the 10th Mountain Division, the U.S. Army’s effort to prepare for winter battles in the Alps or other mountainous terrain.

The division trained from late 1942 to early 1944 at Camp Hale, a new army base located along the Continental Divide about 130 miles west of Denver. The division attracted an unusual mix of skiers from elite schools as well as ranchers and lumberjacks experienced with mountain travel. In late 1944, the 10th Mountain Division was sent to Europe to help dislodge the stubbornly resistant German forces from Italy’s Apennine Mountains. Bloodied by fighting that was among the fiercest of the war, the 10th Mountain then pursued German forces across the Po River and, when the war ended, were driving them from the foothills of the Alps.

In Italy, Parker served as a radio operator in a regimental intelligence and reconnaissance platoon. He was later cited by the Army for calmly operating his radio even when it was necessary to expose himself to enemy fire.

Near the town of Castelfranco, he was in a vehicle that drew fire from a house. A citation issued by the U.S. Army several months later recounted that he leaped from the vehicle armed only with a carbine and approached the window from which the shots had
originated.

“He leaned into the window and, seeing one of the hostile soldiers trying to escape, he fired one shot, severely wounding the enemy,” the citation said. “Immediately he sighted more enemy in another room and, by quick thinking, he was successful in the elimination of these soldiers also.” The Army awarded him a bronze star with oak cluster.

Parker upon discharge from the Army in 1946.

After the war, Parker enrolled at the University of Washington, earning a bachelor’s degree in English in 1949. While in Washington, he became president of the university ski club, guided climbers on Mount Rainier, and met his future wife, Barbara Guy. He also spent a season as a ski patroller in Aspen.

In 1950, he and wife (who later divorced) moved to Europe, working for the U.S. Army as an educator while also earning a certificate in French from the University of Grenoble. He also was awarded a diploma in mountain guiding by the French National Alpine School. They remained to ski, climb, and bicycle extensively in the Alps. His 10th Mountain experience in Colorado had instilled in him a love of mountains. This time in the Alps sealed the passion.

In 1952, he began writing about skiing as the European correspondent for National Skiing, a trade publication. In 1955, after moving to Denver, which was becoming the center for North American skiing, he served five years as editor of Skiing magazine. He stayed until 1962 when, after an argument with the publisher, Merrill Hastings, he took a job at Vail, the ski area then being readied for opening.

He named many of the ski trails, organized ski races, and tapped his contacts to gain national and even international attention on a shoestring budget. He even reshuffled supply lines from Europe to ensure delivery of the resort’s first gondola in time for its scheduled opening.

Much of his early marketing involved ski racing. The U.S. Olympic Ski Team agreed to train at Vail in 1962 even before operations formally began. He was among those who lured Pepi Gramshammer, a famous Austrian ski racer then at Sun Valley, to relocate to Vail. In 1965, he worked with others to make Vail a venue for what in 1967 became the World Cup races.

In 1963, when snow failed to arrive early, he recruited Utes from Southwestern Colorado to perform a rain dance, which the Utes agreed could be called a snow dance on this one occasion. The snow didn’t arrive immediately, but it did come before the all- important Christmas crowd.

At Vail, Parker left his most indelible mark. The ski area was conceived in 1957 by Pete Seibert, another 10th Mountain Division veteran, and a local ski enthusiast, Earl Eaton. Creating a ski area—and a few years later, the eponymously named town— from a sheep pasture required everybody involved to wear many hats. Parker wore more hats than most.

Parker coined the phrase “Ski Country USA” for Vail, but agreed to let it become the namesake for Colorado’s skiing trade organization. He served as president of the organization. A later director, Bob Knous, remembers that Parker was clear about the need to “remember the past, see the future, and apply it to the present.”

During Parker’s time at Vail, the ski industry rode a bulging baby boomer demographic and broadly rising prosperity to transition from a novelty sport enjoyed by economic and athletic elites to a mass-participation sport. Vail, with its moderate slopes and easy accessibility, reflected that transition. One day during Vail’s first season, the resort had only 12 paying customers. By the time Parker retired in 1987, Vail Mountain was doing more than a million skier days per winter, tops among North American ski areas.

Vail’s success was enabled by affordable, long-distance airplane travel. Under Parker, Vail created the first resort joint marketing program, working with American Express and two airlines. “I don’t know if he was the first to figure it out, but he was the first to stand up and do something about it,” says Bill O’Connell, who worked as a marketer under Parker

O’Connell says Parker was open to new ideas. In 1980, for example, he asked for funding to reach out to Australian skiers. Skeptical at first, Parker warmed to the idea.

Vail soon captured a major new international market. In the early 1970s, Parker launched a marketing campaign in Mexico, which resulted in a strong relationship between Vail and Mexico’s wealthy elites that also continues to this day.

“This sounds pretty cocky, but it seems to me that everything we wanted to do, we did. And everything we did, worked,” says O’Connell, who no longer works for Vail.

Parker skiing in the Back Bowls in the late 1960s, Mount of the Holy Cross in the distance. Photo/probably Peter Runyon

Harry Frampton, who arrived in Vail in 1981 to lead the ski company for four years, says that the older Parker impressed upon him the importance of delivering a quality product. “He believed strongly that if the product was terrific, the profits would follow,” says Frampton. “He was the conscience of the company.”

A tragic blemish in Vail’s success was a gondola accident in 1976 that claimed four lives. By then a senior vice president of operations for Vail Associates, Parker played a key role in hearings that absolved Vail of negligence.

During Parker’s early years at Vail, the nation’s attitudes and laws governing environment protections shifted dramatically. Parker was engaged in several efforts to preserve public lands near Vail with wilderness attributes.

One case involved a highway route. State highway officials in the mid-1960s favored a route for the new Interstate 70 through the Gore Range Primitive Area. Truckers and chambers of commerce from Denver to Grand Junction agreed that short, faster route from Frisco to Vail was better. Colorado environmentalists argued for hewing to an existing route. With Parker’s influence, the ski company backed environmentalists. They prevailed, with the result that I-70 today crosses Vail Pass instead of entering a tunnel under Red Buffalo Pass.

In 1969, he became the lead plaintiff in a famous lawsuit, Parker vs. United States, once again involving an effort to preserve the integrity of the same proposed wilderness area by precluding a timber sale planned by the U.S. Forest Service.

Congress, in creating the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area in 1976, included both disputed portions of land.

But the same increased scrutiny of environmental impacts created greater challenges for the ski company when it set out to create a second ski area, called Beaver Creek. The ski company envisioned it as a prime venue for the 1976 Winter Olympics, which Denver had secured as host city. Colorado voters thought otherwise. In 19762 they yanked state funding for the effort. Denver was forced to withdraw, the only time a host has abdicated either Winter or Summer Games.

Beaver Creek was opened in late 1980, setting the standard for state regulatory review of ski areas. It was, however, the last major ski area built in the United States for several decades.

Terry Minger, a former town manager in Vail, calls Parker a marketing genius of the early ski industry, perhaps the best. But Parker was also something more, he says: a visionary, the biggest-picture thinker among Vail’s founders.

“Parker was about the world and how that little place in the Gore Range fit in the world and what it had to offer the world beyond an expensive hamburger and an incredible ski experience.”

He was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 1980 and the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1985.

After leaving the ski company, Parker moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where he intensified his study of Southwestern archaeology. His research resulted in at least one non-peer-reviewed paper.

He also continued to write poetry. Three of his poems were published in the New Yorker in 1951 and 1952. He self-published a book of his poetry in 2006. In his later years he also published a book called “What Did You Do During the War, Dad?”

Parker was born on July 9, 1922, in Evanston, Ill., to Lester W. and Katherine Howard Parker. Because of his father’s work as a teacher, the family moved about often when he was a youngster. He is survived by his son, Guy Parker, daughter-in-law Lori Parker, grand-daughters Chandler and Arden, and also by daughter Katherine Parker and a son-in-law, Mark Mikow.

Memorial services are pending.

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Does Tony Seba wax too optimistic about technology?

Can Tony Seba be right about convergance of technology disruptions in cars and energy in around 2020-21?

by Allen Best

BOULDER, Colo. – Remember when very few people had cell phones—and then, just like that, everybody had one? Then, almost as quickly, everybody was clutching a smart phone.

It was not the first rapid technology disruption—nor the last. Tony Seba, a lecturer at Stanford University, starts out his presentations by showing a picture from New York City’s Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday in 1908. It’s all horse-drawn carriages—except for one car.

Then, the same scene on Easter Sunday 1913. This time, there’s one horse-drawn carriage. Otherwise it’s all cars.

Tony Seba

We’re on the cusp of changes in energy storage, electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and solar energy that will be just as transformative, Seba said, in a presentation at the University of Colorado-Boulder on June 8. The presentation was a fund-raiser for Clean Energy Action, a Colorado group.

Disruptions of this sort occur because of cost curves and technology convergence. Both were evident in the rapid adoption of smart phones in about 2007. One was the rapidly plummeting costs of hard disk storage, about 50 percent less every 18 months. Digital imaging also improved rapidly.

When such convergences occur, the adoption rate is not linear, but rather accelerates, rapidly going from 20 percent market penetration to 80 percent. One year, almost nobody had a smart phone. A decade later, everybody does.

Other convergences occur with old business models. Airbnb and other Internet-based bookings are actually an old business model, he said. They’re no more than brokers for booking of lodging. What has made all the difference is the marriage with new technology, especially smart phones. That difference is illustrated even more clearly with Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing services.

Now, four technology innovations married to business innovations will “disrupt all energy and transportation” in the next 12 years.

Energy storage will be one major disruptor. Lithium-ion batteries have dropped about 14 percent in costs annually over the last 15 years. Since 2010, the cost reduction has accelerated to about 20 percent each year.

Now, investments in battery technology are ballooning. Tesla has its “gigafactory” near Reno, Nevada, and has plans for three or four more. But they won’t be alone. There will be 12 such megafactories by 2020, said Seba. Among those diving into the market is Dyson, the vacuum maker, which is planning to invest $1 billion in battery manufacturing during the next five years.

This rapid drop in storage costs will have profound implications for our electrical supply. Right now, the electrical grid operates like a just-in-time supply chain absent backup inventory. That means that utilities must be prepared to meet maximum demand. Maximum demand in most places occurs on hot, summer afternoons when every air conditioner is blasting at full throttle. For winter heating, natural gas is more commonly used.

How then to meet this summer-time peak? Utilities must have what are called peaking plants to use a few hours here, a few hours there: 32 percent of generation assets are used just 5.9 percent of the time.

A solar farm in northern New Mexico. Photo/Kit Carson Electric Cooperative

Nationally, this adds up to a lot of investment, about one gigawatt of generating capacity. That’s about what a large coal-fired power plant complex can generate, but just 120 hours a year.

What if you can store energy for those hot, summer afternoons? With more cost effective storage, that’s probably what more and more people will do. Seba estimated that the cost of storing a day’s worth of energy for a home by 2020 or so will be just $1.20 per day.

But you won’t need to store energy for a full day to disrupt the business model of a typical utility. Just 4 to 6 hours of storage will do.

This has profound ramifications to our centralized energy system. Tesla is now powering one island in the Pacific Ocean called Ta’u with 1.4 megawatts of solar capacity backed up by 6 megawatts of storage capacity delivered by Tesla’s SolarCity.

Electric vehicles will be a second major disruptor. EV’s were always compelling because electric motors are five times more energy efficient than an internal-combustion engine that burns gas or diesel. Those engines are only 17 to 21 percent efficient. Most of the energy is dissipated as waste. Electrical motors are 90 to 95 percent efficient.

This means vast saving in fuel costs. Citing “Consumer Reports,” Seba said that an electric Jeep Liberty will save $15,000 in fuel costs during five years as compared to a Jeep Liberty that burns gas.

Maintenance costs will be less for EVs. They have 18 moving parts, compared to more than 2,000 moving parts in an internal combustion engine. The power train for an EV can go 500,000 miles and maybe even a million miles, as Tesla and other manufactures are saying.

EVs will be 10 times less expensive to maintain.

The big drawback on EVs—other than issues of range—has been the up-front cost. Now that is disappearing. “By 2020, you will have $22,000 electric vehicles without subsidies,” he said.

Autonomous vehicles are a third major disruptor arriving, very, very soon. Seba said 33 companies are investing in self-driving vehicles. Elon Musk has said there will be a self-driving car that will travel from California to New York without anybody touching the controls by December 2017.

An electric charger in Carbondale, Colo. Photo/Clean Energy Economy for the Region, Garfield County

Again, there is a cost curve that matters. Self-driving cars depend upon technology mounted on the car that maintains a 360-view of the surroundings. In 2010, that LIDAR cost $70,000. By 2016, it was down to $250. This cost reduction is in line with dramatic cost declines and reduced power requirements for computing. Seba said those reductions will continue.

Autonomous vehicles are computers on wheels, Seba said. “Essentially, $2,000 of equipment can make your car self-driving,” he said.

The combination of electric and autonomous vehicles will have profound consequences for how we live and use land allocations. Cars sit idle 96 percent of the time. If we share autonomous cars, they will sit idle only 60 percent of the time. That can free up vast amounts of space currently dedicated to parking. Los Angeles currently has enough space allocated for parking to accommodate three cities the size of San Francisco.

Seba predicts that by 2031, 95 percent of all passenger miles will be autonomous. “I might be off by a year or two,” he allowed.

Autonomous and electric cars will also be 10 times cheaper to operate. They’re the second-largest capital expense in household budgets.

And this has profound implications for our oil-based economy. Seba predicted global demand for oil will peak at 100 million barrels per day in 2020 and then drop about 70 million barrels per day by 2030.

This will leave many oil-extraction operations stranded, because they will be uneconomical. This includes deep-water drilling. Ditto for the tight sands, such as have made the Bakken field in North Dakota and the Jonah field in Wyoming famous. The only oil that can compete is conventional on-shore oil—and then at just $25 a barrel or less.

“The whole geopolitics of oil is going to change.”

Solar constitutes the final disruption identified by Seba in the next few years. Since 2000, the total installed capacity of solar PV has doubled every two years. “If it keeps doubling, how long before solar provides 100 percent of electrical capacity? By 2030, he answered.

Cost matters here. Solar photovoltaic panels are 303 times cheaper than they were in 1970. This has occurred without dramatic breakthroughs in technology. In contrast, the cost of conventional, fossil fuel generation has increased 16 fold over that same time period.

Companies are going solar because it makes economic sense. Sixty-nine percent of corporations are actively pursuing solar purchase. They’re doing it because of cost and reliability. With solar, they have an assured rate. Costs will not rise.

In the past, we have had centralized generation of energy, especially from fossil fuels. But the reduced cost of distributed solar combined with storage will dramatically reduce the need for transmission—because of the exorbitant cost of transmission.

The tipping point, he said, will be 2020 or 2021.

In some places, solar has already become extraordinarily cheap: 2.91 cents a kilowatt-hour in Chile and 2.99 cents in the nation of Dubai. Here, in the United States, solar is expected by some to be below 3.5 cents a kilowatt-hour by 2020. Tucson Electric recently signed a purchase for solar combined with storage for 4.5 cents a kilowatt-hour, and of that solar is 3 cents.

Bottom line? “This is not an energy transition. This is a technology disruption, and it will happen, very, very quickly. And the tipping point is going to be about 2020 for both energy and transportation.”

You can watch a video of Seba’s presentation here on YouTube courtesy of Martin Voelker of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society.

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The challenge of job losses in coal communities


No one-stop shopping for solutions to job losses in coal communities

A mural on the side of a building in Gillette, Wyo., in 2011 sought to represent the economic activities that historically had driven the local economy. Absent was in the depiction coal, which did not come on until the 1970s. Photo/Allen Best

by Allen Best

For decades, Wyoming has been asking itself how it can diversify its economy. Jackson Hole has an abundance of billionaires, but hydrocarbons do the state’s heavy financial lifting.

Mineral taxes rank first in delivering state revenues, followed by interest on investments Tourism comes third.

Now, the same question about diversification is being asked again, this time with more urgency. Coal has been sliding, as witnessed by the bankruptcy filing last year of Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, the nation’s first and second largest coal producers. Both are major operators in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

The Powder River Basin became nationally prominent because of the abundance of low-sulphur, low-mercury coal. Those attributes became important as electrical producers across the United States were forced to address acid rain and other impacts of burning coal in the 1980s and 1990s. That led to 110-car trains lined up  four to six deep on the sidings south of Gillette, the basin’s largest town, waiting to join the virtual conveyor belt of coal to power plants as far away as Florida.

Even now, after dozens of coal plants have been retired, the Powder River Basin still delivers 12 percent of total U.S. energy. That figure is for all U.S. energy. Not just the coal sector but also hydropower from the big dams, gasoline imported from the Middle East, solar collectors in California and wind turbines in Kansas.

But here’s a telling statistic: the assessed valuation of Campbell County, located at the heart of the Powder River, has dropped a third in the last two years, from $6 billion to $4 billion now.

As a mile-long coal train sets out to deliver coal to a distant power plant, five more wait in the queue at the siding at Wright, Wyo., just south of Gillette. Photo/Allen Best

What can local leaders do? A conference, “Strengthening Economies in the West: A Regional Forum for Coal Reliant Communities,” was held during April in Denver, Among the speakers was Mark Christiansen, a county commissioner in Campbell County, where Gillette is located.

Christiansen indicated that he believes Wyoming has made wise decisions but has no easy answers ahead. State revenues for many years were salted away for a rainy day. That downturn became evident about four years ago as coal was undercut by both natural gas prices and renewables.

From strictly and economic, not environmental, perspective, natural gas poses the greater challenge to the coal-dependent communities of the Powder River Basin. Christiansen described a gray area of energy economics. Electrical producers will absolutely crank up the gas turbines if natural gas falls below $2.50 a million Btu, as it often has been in the last several years. When gas is above $3.75,  coal is cheaper.

Wyoming’s decision to build financial reserves has allowed it to operate differently than many places. “Wyoming has a different philosophy. We pay cash,” he said.

But no money has been deposited in the state fund for four years, Christiansen said. Campbell County has also experienced declines, but still has a cash reserve of $260 million. Minerals provide 90 percent of the county’s tax base.

Christiansen painted a mixed picture of the efforts made to diversify Wyoming’s economy. Revenues were plowed into the University Wyoming. It has what he called a tier-one engineering school. “We are educating the best and the brightest—and now we’re seeing them all leave. Now we’re trying to figure out how to get them to come back to us.”

During the good times, it was hard to find enough people for all the high-paying jobs in the coal fields and power plants. “Everybody talked about economic diversification when times were easy, but at that time there wasn’t enough workforce for the demand we already had in the energy industry.”

During the 1990s, an office park was built in Gillette that was intended to be a home for call-centers. It didn’t work out. Call centers don’t pay high wages. Coal fields do.

The main street in Gillette, Wyo., in May 2011. Photo/Allen Best

Gillett and Campbell County created a place where people want to stay, he said. “You can’t have a community be attractive until that community is willing to be attractive to families,” he said. Even as the coal economy has declined, many in the community of 45,000 people found ways to stay “because they like the community. We have good schools, we have art and education.”

Wyoming isn’t ready to give up on coal. The state launched a Carbon Research Center, which is focused on creating value-added products from carbon. One of them is water purification.

In Montana, jobs in the coal sector are also declining. Like Wyoming, Montana has used severance taxes collected on coal mines since the 1970s to pay for state infrastructure, according to Jim Atchison, executive director of the Southeastern Montana Development Corp., but also public retirement funds and long-range building at the universities, even libraries and parks.

“Coal pays a lot of bills in Montana. And Montana is blessed to have $1 billion in its permanent trust fund,” he said.

Montana has 25 percent of the U.S. proved reserved coal reserves. Atchison’s area encompasses the Colstrip mining area, an extension of the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Montana actually has more coal, but the Wyoming component of the basin is located closer to the surface. That enables less expensive surface strip mining.

But the Colstrip area still has 800 coal-related jobs, and some will be lost. Two of the four coal-fired units will be closed in 2022, the result of a lawsuit settlement concerning air quality violations.

“So far, we haven’t been hit like Colorado or Utah or some of the other Western states,” said Atchison in an interview after the conference. He describes it being like a storm on the horizon. “You just don’t know if it will hit you at 5 o’clock or 8 o’clock.”

Demographics also pose a challenge for Montana. In age, it is currently the 6th or 7th oldest, and within he next two decades it projected to have the 4th oldest population.

Colorado is less reliant on coal severance taxes than Wyoming and Montana, but it has major production in primarily two areas: Northwest Colorado, both Routt and Moffat counties, and in the North Fork of the Gunnison River Valley, east of Delta.

Irv Halter, executive director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, pointed to efforts to extend broadband to all areas of the state. Broadband extends across 70 percent of the state, and officials hope to make that 100 percent by 2020. In the North Fork Valley 50 percent of jobs have been shed in recent years.

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Colorado co-op goes to NREL for next chief executive

Holy Cross goes to NREL to help figure out the utility of the future

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — When a utility needs a new chief executive, it usually promotes from within its ranks or finds somebody with a depth of experience running a utility.

Not so Holy Cross Energy, the electrical co-operative that serves six ski areas, including Vail, Beaver Creek, Aspen, and Snowmass. For its next chief executive it has plucked Bryan Hannegan from the staff at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, located in suburban Denver.

Bryan Hannegan

Hannegan has been associate director of the Energy Systems Integration Laboratory. At that lab, NREL has been trying to integrate the many things happening in energy. How will electric cars fit into the new grid? How can consumers be more actively involved in choosing when to use electricity to take best advantage of lower prices or renewable energy?

“Utilities don’t like to experiment on their systems,” Hannegan—who holds a Ph.D. in earth science systems as well as a master’s degree in engineering—told the Vail Daily. The experiments are run at the laboratory.

Holy Cross was early among electrical co-operatives in trying to push the integration of renewables and carbon-reduction strategies.

For example, the co-op offered a premium rate for electricity generated by a plant that burns wood, mostly trees killed by bark beetle, from the Vail-Summit County areas. The co-op also offered a price premium for electricity that is produced by burning the methane being emitted by a nearby coal mine. The burning of methane still produces a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, but CO2 is far less potent than methane.

Adam Palmer, a member of the board of directors from the Eagle area, says that Hannegan “just really nailed the vision that was shared by the board.”

That board sees utilities of the future operating very differently. Customers could be able to choose when to do run their dryers, for example, to take advantage of lower rates. The utility will also have deeper penetration of renewables. Wind is now the cheapest form of electricity, but solar has been rapidly dropping in price.

Yes, but the sun doesn’t always shine. True, but storage prices have been sliding downward. Palmer cited a report from Arizona about a solar-plus-storage deal that put the price of electricity at 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, lower than most fossil fuel generation.

In Telluride, there’s news about efforts to pressure electrical providers to boost the renewables. The Telluride Daily Planet says that directors of the San Miguel Power Association—which is, like Holy Cross, a co-operative—are asking for permission to generate up to 10 percent of their power through renewables. The co-op is currently capped at providing 5 percent of its own generation. The rest must come from Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the wholesale supplier.

Tri-State points out that 26 percent of energy delivered to local co-ops in Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico comes from renewable sources. Much of that comes from hydroelectric dams in the West. Other co-ops, including La Plata Electric, which serves Durango, are also limited by Tri-State’s 5 percent cap.

Elsewhere in ski towns, Park City has set out to plant 500 trees in open space areas. The trees, say city officials, will become a sponge, soaking up carbon.

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Remembering when all of Colorado seemed to be on fire

Three giant forest fires raged in Colorado 15 years ago this week. What did we learn from them?

Smoke from a fire on the western flanks of the Flat Tops, around Trappers Lake, created an eerie late-afternoon scene along Interstate 70 near Dotsero, east of Glenwood Canyon. Photo take in July or perhaps early August 2002. Photo/Allen Best

by Allen Best

Fifteen years ago this past Sunday, I went sightseeing, as did Colorado’s governor. We both returned home deeply impressed, maybe even spooked.

From Denver, I had driven to Camp Hale, between Vail and Leadville, then hiked up Resolution Mountain. It stands 11,905 feet, modest by Colorado standards but high enough to get a commanding view of the landscape south and west. My companion, Cathy, remembers being unsettled by the type of clouds we could see from the summit.

Then-Gov. Bill Owens had a higher, broader purview from his seat in an airplane. Two major forest fires had started the afternoon before, and while we were on the mountain and the governor was presumably in the air, yet a third major fire started.

Returning to Denver, Owens told reporters: “It looks like all of Colorado is burning today.” He took  crap for that observation. Colorado was not all on fire! It will keep tourists at home! But if not literally true, all of Colorado figuratively was on fire.

It had been a dry winter, and April bellowed hot winds. The three fires that the governor saw that day had started almost simultaneously. On June 8, a Saturday, a fire from an underground coal seam underlying the western part of Glenwood Springs caused dried vegetation on the ground to catch fire. It was a hot and windy day, and the flames roared and then leaped across railroad tracks, the Colorado River, and Interstate 70. It eventually burned 12,200 acres but, more importantly, raced through a city.

That same day, in central Colorado, a Forest Service employee—perhaps ironically a fire prevention technician—burned letters in a campground of what she said was a romance gone sour. She left and the flames spread, becoming the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire. One woman died of an asthma attack provoked by the smoke, and five firefighters died in a car wreck en route to Colorado to help fight the flames. As The Denver Post’s John Ingold noted in 2012, Barton’s story was widely disbelieved. She served five years in prison.

In southwest Colorado yet a third fire, called Missionary Ridge, north of Durango, began on June 9, the day I climbed the mountain. That fire eventually burned 70,500 acres. No cause of ignition was ever determined.

Denver that month was often smoky. I remember the sinister light that left streets looking scenes from a sci-fi movie about some future, dystopian civilization. Sunshine filtered through smoke has a disturbing orange tint, kind of like our current president’s dyed hair. It leaves you vaguely out of sorts, kind of like that first blush of sickness, say the onslaught of flu, when you don’t feel quite right but just can’t explain it. That’s what June 2002 felt like as the Hayman and other fires raged.

Drought was the major story. Dendrochronologist, or tree-ring, experts, concluded that it had been the driest runoff in 150 to 300 years, depending upon location. The Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon had a peak that was almost inconspicuous. Downstream farther, Lake Powell plummeted, leaving a giant bathtub ring. Flows into the reservoir were 25 percent of the long-term average and the lowest since the dam had been completed in 1963.

Dead needles of lodgepole pine trees were a clear reminder of the vulnerability of homes in places like Vail to fire. Photo/Allen Best

But the fires also renewed the conversations about our rights and our responsibilities when living in a fire-prone landscape. Arguably, Glenwood Springs could have done very little or nothing to have insulated itself from the fire. But Missionary Ridge and Hayman both resulted in loss of homes built in what is called the wildland-urban interface. You know: the cabin sitting out in the forest, away from the aggravations of town or city life. But ponderosa pine forests burn every few decades.

The late Ed Quillen, writing in The Denver Post, captured at least a portion of the discussion by calling this the stupid zone.

Did we learn from 2002? Yes, and perhaps no. In the decade that followed, there were other major fires, particularly along the Front Range. Most significant were two giant fires in another hot, dry year decade later, in the hot, dry year of 2012, we had giant forest fires at Colorado Springs and west of Fort Collins. Hundreds and hundreds more homes burned.

The larger story is more nuanced. As humans we are very, very forgetful. Six years after a big fire, maybe sooner, the memory of the devastation recedes. People decide it’s OK to build houses in places where fire occurred because — well, hey, it’s pretty and it’s away from the city. (If I had the money, I might be tempted to live in such places myself).

But in Summit County, Vail and Steamboat Springs, there was additional reminder. The drought further weakened aging forest of lodgepole pine, making them more vulnerable to an epidemic of bark beetles that spread a fungus that kills the trees.  These places always were vulnerable to forest fires, if infrequent. But whole hillsides of rust-colored needles made the risk that much more susceptible.

Vail modified building codes to slowly phase out the shake-wood shingles that made houses more vulnerable. The town also began thinning forests along its periphery, creating something of a moat. Breckenridge shifted its regulations. Instead of penalizing people who removed trees from their property, aggressive efforts were launched to reward creation of defensible space, to lower the risk of fire spreading to homes.

A scene in Summit County, between Farmers’ Corner and Summit Cover, overlooking Dillon Reservoir, both pre-treatment and afterward.

Other work has been done by water agencies in cooperation with federal and state land agencies. Denver Water, for example, pledged $16.5 million, a figure matched by the U.S. Forest Service, for thinning of forests in its collection areas. The city’s Cheesman Reservoir was heavily clogged by sediment resulting from the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire and then again the Hayman Fire. In February 2017, the city renewed its $16.5 million commitment to the program, called From Forests to Faucets. Work—now including the Colorado Forest Service and the Natural  Resources Conservation Service—will include projects in both Summit and Grand counties. Roughly 50 percent of Denver Water’s 1.4 million customers get supplied by water diverted from these two counties. Other water agencies, such as Aurora, have similar programs in forested areas from which they draw water.

In May, Breckenridge and the Forest Service announced a memorandum of understanding regarding “treatment” of forested lands in the area along the Blue River where the town draws its water.

Unlike the frequent fires of lower-elevation ponderosa pine forests, fire only rarely visited  high-elevation spruce-fir forests rarely in centuries past. The last giant fire in the Fraser Valley, for example, occurred about the time that British emigrants were trying to establish a colony at Jamestown, in the early 1600s.

How might warming temperatures change the fire regimes? It’s clear enough that 2002 and 2012 should be viewed as harbingers of what is likely to come. But that’s another story, and I welcome you to see what experts had to say on the subject at a workshop held during March in Aurora.

 

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A sort-of normal spring runoff in an abnormal year

A standup surfer in the Arkansas River at Salida during Fibark, the river celebration held in late June. Photo/Allen Best

Where spring runoff has been something like average—and where it hasn’t

by Allen Best

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – Spring runoff of the Yampa River likely peaked on May 14 this year as it flowed through northwestern Colorado. That makes it an anomaly in the precipitation-dripping mountains of the West.

In most other locations, the peak runoff—the time when the largest volume of water in rivers occurs as winter’s snow melts—more normally occurs in early June after temperatures have finally warmed. This year looks to be more or less normal, despite a trend to earlier runoff in many locations during the last several decades.

“The Yampa did have an early runoff, and that was the result of the warm temperatures and below-average snowpack,” said Ashley Nielson, senior hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, when interviewed last week by Mountain Town News. The Yampa, she noted, will probably rise again in the next week or so, if not to the same high mark.

But elsewhere, the show is occurring now. Peak runoff of the Green River was expected this week or next. The river originates in the Wind River Range of west-central Wyoming. Unlike the Yampa, that basin still has a significant snowpack. That was also reported to be the case in Jackson Hole, at the headwaters of the Snake River. The snowpack there was 181 percent of average in late May, not a record but “up there,” in the words of one water official cited by the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Peak runoff in the upper Colorado River at its headwaters along the Continental Divide in Colorado was also expected to occur in early June.

Winter had wild swings: barren until late fall, then torrents of snow in December and January. Temperatures were unseasonably warm in February and almost hot in March. It looked like an early runoff everywhere. Then May turned cold and snowy.

What explains the Yampa’s aberrant behavior? Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver, said the peak snowpack in northwestern Colorado arrived about a month earlier than usual. That snowpack around Steamboat Springs occurred on March 12, compared a more typical April 10.

Instead of mid-May for the Yampa, he says that rafters floating through Dinosaur National Monument more often experience the highest water flows of the year in early June.

The Dolores River in southwestern Colorado on Memorial Day in 2009. Photo/Allen Best

Flows in the Animas River through Silverton and Durango have had some “pretty wild swings,” Wetlaufer says.

The Snake River of Wyoming and Idaho has a very different story than the Yampa, with around 200 percent of snowpack this year. The Snake originates in Jackson Hole and picks up water from the Big Wood River, which originates in the Sawtooth Mountains above Ketchum and Sun Valley, before joining the Columbia at the Idaho-Washington border.

“My takeaway is that this year is pretty normal” in terms of timing, says Bruce Anderson, the senior hydrologist at the Northwest River Forecast Center, in Portland, Ore. It was cooler and wetter in spring, but the big story was the amount of precipitation that fell during winter. “We are hugely above normal for precipitation.”

In the Tahoe-Truckee area of California’s Sierra Nevada, the snowpack was among the deeper ones on record after three bad drought years and then a so-so winter in 2015-16. Snowfall this winter was not a record, but it was a record for total precipitation. Being somewhat lower and closer to the coast than Colorado, the Sierra Nevada gets more rain during winter. This year it got a lot of rain.

Colorado, too, had rain on snow, which is not unprecedented. But it happened frequently this winter. The result was telling for travelers on I-70 when crossing Vail Pass.

“In general, there was less snow than you would expect,” says Klaus Wolter, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder.

Were those rain on snow storms of this past winter a result of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions? Wolter told Mountain Town News that thinks this is “probably partially climate change.”

Wolter, whose focus is empirical climate research, using statistical methods to solve climate problems, is reluctant to pin climate change on much of what we have seen this year. True, he says, one storm during May left 42 inches of fresh snow in the foothills above Boulder, a storm unprecedented since the 1920s. As extreme as that storm was, proving causality is difficult, he says.

A scientist in Oregon also shared the difficulty of proving causality. John Stevenson of Oregon State University told the Idaho Mountain Express in Ketchum that it’s “really difficult to judge any one year” to be a result of rising global temperatures.

“That’s one of the challenges we run into in the science world where people say, ‘Oh, it’s climate change.’ We’re not at the point where we can take any one random event and say it’s climate change.”

That said, his 2015 study concluded that the point each spring when half of the water year’s streamflow had run off was occurring an average 1.9 days earlier per decade.

But more extreme events are happening with greater frequency, said Mark Davidson, director of conservation initiatives with The Nature Conservancy. He pointed out that the Big Wood River has had two 100-year floods in the last 15 years.

Temperatures in the Ketchum and Sun Valley area were 6 to 13 degrees warmer than normal for early May, producing a flood in the Big Wood River that peaked on May 8. It was regarded as the largest in 101 years of recorded history, reports the Idaho Mountain Express.

More  warm weather was producing another surge in early June that threatened to surpass that peak of a month before, the Express reported last week.

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The news briefly from mountain towns

Vail’s rare stand about national political issues

VAIL, Colo. — If President Donald Trump is withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord, Vail is among the hundreds of towns pointing in the other direction. They’re staying the course.

In Telluride and Aspen, such resolutions are common enough. But Vail traditionally has been more shy.

The difference, said Greg Moffet, a long-time councilman who made the motion to adopt the resolution, is because of the importance of climate change.

The unanimously-adopted resolution said the municipality recognizes that scientific evidence of warming of the Earth’s climate system from human activities is unequivocal.

“Combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum and natural gas is increasing the concentration (of) greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, pushing average global temperatures higher and changing our mountain ecosystems — making winters warmer and shorter, summers longer and hotter, and increasing the risks of wildfires, droughts and floods,” the resolution reads.

Demographics don’t look good for Eagle County

EDWARDS, Colo. – Colorado’s state demographer, Elizabeth Garner, warns that the demographics for Eagle County aren’t setting up well.

Anchored by Vail and Beaver Creek, the county currently has 4,000 people aged 65 and older. But every year about 550 people in the county celebrate their 65th birthdays, and only about 150 of them leave the county. The rest stay—and this is tilting the population older.

The question is who will be there to work.

According to the Vail Daily, she said that people between 20 and 30 are now arriving in Eagle County, but when they’re in their 30s and 40s they’re leaving. “We need exceptional 45-year-olds,” she said.

Eagle County has fewer jobs than it did in 2007. Job creation in neighboring Summit County has grown. Could it be because of the more aggressive housing program in Summit County, where more than 400 deed-restricted homes have been built or acquired in the last several years?

A recent study by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments — which includes the Breckenridge, Vail, and Aspen areas – found that the average annual salary in the region is $13,000 per year below the state average. Garner said that Eagle County simply can’t sustain its current high-cost, low-wage model.

Much of the same thing was said in the 1990s by Garner’s predecessor, Jim Weskott, but with one exception: He predicted fast and continued population growth. Growth stalled in 2009 and hasn’t resumed since then.

Reefer catching up with booze in Summit town

FRISCO, Colo. – In terms of mood altering substances, beer, wine, and liquor still outpace marijuana. But the Summit Daily News reports that marijuana is gaining on alcohol, as measured by sales tax collections.

Alcohol last year generated $346,000 for the town, compared to $213,000 from marijuana. But the liquor sales do not include what is sold in restaurants and bars.

Legal sales of marijuana began in 2014. Will volumes slow after his initial spurt?

“No, I don’t think so at all,” said Patrick Linfante, assistant manager for Native Roots, the busier of the two marijuana stores in Frisco.

Summer labor shortages unusually high this year

JASPER, Alberta – Filling all the jobs in Jasper’s high summer season is always a challenge. This year seems worse, reports the Jasper Fitzhugh.

In early June, 380 jobs were available, more than double the number of jobs posted at the same time last year. “We’re already seeing managers making beds in hotels,” said Ginette Marcoux , executive director for the Jasper Employment and Education Centre. “That usually doesn’t happen until August. The fact that we’re seeing that in June is telling.”

Why is this? She cited the lack of housing, fewer university students, and changes to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program. Employers in the low-wage service sector cannot access that program if the regional unemployment rate is 6 percent or higher. The unemployment rate in that part of Canada stands at 6.9 percent.

As for university students, employers may not favor them because they leave when schools resume in mid-August, when tourist season continues.

 Dead octopuses and other stories from food festival

ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen hosted the Food and Beverage Festival last weekend, and it was a busy, busy time in Aspen. The event draws a very well-heeled crowd. Consider that it costs $1,650 for a weekend pass.

This is the 35th year for the festival. The event was launched in 1983, when June was a somewhat slower month in Aspen. There are 50 winemakers pouring for just 300 guests.

It was an instant hit, but not a financial success. That didn’t come until a pairing several years later with Food and Wine Magazine and a rebranding as the Aspen-Snowmass Food & Wine Classic. “And, as they say, the rest is history,” The Aspen Times writes.

Now, the festival attracts big-name chefs from far away to talk about chocolate and whatever else. For example, the first seminar on Saturday morning had renowned chef Daniel Boulud holding a skinned rabbit high in the air. “Once you go rabbit, you never go back,” he said.

It wasn’t the only time he dangled a dead animal in the packed house at the “Exotic Mediterranean” seminar, Times correspondent Rose Laudicina wrote. What ensued were “three delicious dishes inspired by the Mediterranean with three wine pairings. The second octopus—two of them, followed by a more sedate honey-glazed eggplant.

Outside the tent, on Aspen’s malls, municipal code enforcement officer Jim Pomeroy was trying to keep order. “It’s like a mosh pit in there,” he told the Aspen Daily News.

Pomeroy’s job was to ensure that people weren’t trying to hawk goods, competing with businesses that buy licenses and pay sales and property taxes.

One of the offending businesses was a woman trying to sell hand-crafted mirrors. But he also had to tell two girls working for Red Bull, wandering around the mall, handing out free samples of the energy drink, that it was a no-no.

Food and wine organizers demand that guerilla marketing be stamped out, lest it water down the exposure of the brands paying big bucks to get in front of the well-heeled attendees.

But what about the 11-year-old with a lemonade stand? The municipal code officer didn’t say close it down, reports the Daily News. Instead, he told the proprietor’s father that the enterprise would have to move a block away, to avoid creating congestion.

How Vail helped create  Aspen’s pedestrian malls

ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen came before Vail as a ski town by about 15 years, but in one respect, creating a pedestrian-friendly mall, Aspen learned from Vail.

Aspen was shaped by people from the Midwest in the 1880s, and they created a rectangular street grid pattern in the relatively broad valley where Aspen is located. When horse and buggies gave way to cars, the streets were readily converted. But even in the mid-1950s, a decade after ski area operations, the streets remained unpaved.

Why not turn Mill Street into a walking mall “where regular street fairs could take place?” That was the recommendation by a 1956 University of Utah architecture class. Continuing on into the 1960s, there was a growing national awareness of a walkable city as being part of a higher quality of life, according to a new account in the Aspen Daily News.

Still, business owners pushed back. Bil (yes, he used just one “l”) Dunaway, the long-time publisher of The Aspen Times, countered with an argument that Vail was more pedestrian friendly than Aspen. Even then, when Vail was just a decade old, there was a sense of rivalry.

“Aside from skiing, the most successful aspect of Vail is the pedestrian-oriented village center, where four or five blocks are reserved for walkers…and the vehicular-free atmosphere is tranquil and conductive to leisurely strolling or shopping,” he wrote.

Finally, in 1976, Aspen’s car-free, outdoor malls were opened.

Now, the malls must be transformed again. The pavers originally acquired from St. Louis for the malls need to be replaced. Such bricks are in short supply, explains the Daily News, and the challenge will be to find surface pavers that meet the community’s expectations regarding the bricks’ ambiance.

Far fewer complaints five years into plastic bag ban

ASPEN, Colo. — Five years after Aspen banned disposable grocery bags, the ban seems to be working. City staff recently did a visual survey, and they found that 45 percent of shoppers left the stores without using any bags, while 40 percent took their own reusable bags for shopping. The remaining 15 percent bought paper bags at a cost of 20 cents each.

In comparison, in a grocery store located 20 miles down-valley from Aspen, where there is no ban, 74 percent of shoppers used the disposable bags.

Might Aspen want to expand its ban? City staff said no, that eliminating the paper bags might make tourists cranky. And the plastic bags sold by other stores, such as for clothing, just aren’t that many.

A local grocery store manager interviewed for the report said customers initially reacted with anger to the bag-ban, but now he gets complaints only once every few weeks.

Ketchum dialing back the knob on polluting the dark

KETCHUM, Idaho — Ketchum and the Wood River Valley continue to take steps to seek designation as a dark skies community from the International Dark Skies Association.

The Idaho Mountain Express reports that the planning commission recommends more rigorous regulations governing use of lights at night. Changes would include banning holiday lights between April and November, banning unshielded exterior light fixtures, and imposing a restriction on the type of lights to avoid the harshness of the new LED lights.

Being struck by lightning, and living to talk about it

GRAND LAKE, Colo. – Few among us have been hit by lightning. Barbara Stemple was hit and lived to tell about it. That was three years ago. It was an August day of clear, blue skies.

She is now hoping to join a group who have undergone what she has gone through, she told the Sky-Hi News. “A lightning strike kind of scrambles a person’s brain,” she said. “It changes your whole neurological system.”

Survivors can suffer short-term memory loss and ear-aches. Also, depression and chronic fatigue. Survivors often feel as though their thought processes are delayed, which is why many are loathe to talk about their experience.

 

New suspension bridge atop  Whistler-Blackcomb tops new summer attractions

WHISTLER, B.C. —Whistler Blackcomb continues to expand its summer operations, with plans for both a major expansion of its world-renowned mountain bike park and erect a new mountain-top suspension bridge.

The mountain bike park is to get 14 kilometres of additional single-track trails, augmenting the 80 kilometers created during the last 20 years.

The suspension bridge will be atop Whistler Mountain at an elevation of 2,182 metres (7,160 feet). While that’s lower than the base area of most Colorado ski resorts, keep in mind that the base area for Whistler is at roughly 2,000 feet. The bridge will be close to the glaciers.

Both summer projects were previously identified in a $345 million investment called the Renaissance project. Company officials explained the investments as necessary to buffer the resort from the effects of the changing climate. One of the major attractions was to be the indoor water park, an answer to the rainy days of winter and a summer attraction in its own right.

Vail Resorts announced purchase of the resort at a cost of $1 billion several months after the Renaissance project was announced. Pique Newsmagazine reports that resort officials believe the waterpark won’t be built for at least several years. Vail Resorts top officials must sign off on it.

Tension abounds about immigration crackdown

ASPEN, Colo. — Tension about the Trump administration’s policies on immigration continues to be in the news in Aspen, a resort community vitally dependent on employees willing to work for lower wages. Many appear to be in the United States illegally.

Pitkin County commissioners in April passed a resolution that declared Pitkin County would be a “welcoming community for immigrants.” The county resolution instructs county personnel to not perform the functions of federal immigration officers or otherwise engage in the enforcement of federal immigration law.

But the Trump administration is now trying to use federal purse strings to get local cooperation with immigration officials. A memo sent from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to county sheriffs in Colorado reminded them that “state and local jurisdictions may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.”

Pitkin County responds that cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and federal immigration officials may violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects persons against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Aspen Daily News reports that Pitkin County officials won’t budge. County Manager Jon Peacock says he believes the resolution does not appear to violate the federal law cited by Sessions in his memo.

Tension and uncertainty are also reported among immigrants, worried they may be deported.

“People are afraid enough of being deported that even documented immigrants—people with green cards who are here legally—are asking that their names be removed from enrollment lists at local health-services providers,” Jennifer Smith, one of three attorneys in the Roaring Fork Valley whose practice is totally focused on immigration law, told the Daily News

“They do not want to talk to police officers, either as victims of crimes or witnesses. I have clients who do not want to travel, especially abroad. I tell them, ‘Hey, you have a green card. You should be able to leave the country and come back legally.’ But many don’t want to risk it.”

Money spigots open as ski town hotels move forward

TAOS, N.M. — A flurry of new hotels provides more evidence of the booming economy in ski towns of the Rocky Mountains.

In Aspen, demolition of the aging Sky Hotel began. That hotel, built in the 1960s, will be replaced by a $56 million W Hotel.

John Sarpa, a representative of Northridge Capital, the developer, said the construction loan is coming from “a big investment firm” that he did not identify. He also noted there were multiple options for financing.

“A year ago, we had some options, but not a lot,” he told the Aspen Daily News. This year, “we had three times” as many options. “Maybe we are finally coming out from under the shadow of 2008.”

The 40-foot-tall building will have a 12,000-square-foot rooftop bar and pool deck.

If Aspen’s W Hotel goes for the high end, the 56-room Silver Creek hotel at Bellevue, Idaho, will hope to attract people who don’t want to pay $300 to $500 for rooms at Ketchum and Sun Valley, located 18 miles up-valley.

The Idaho Mountain Express reports that units were constructed in Boise, several hours away, and trucked to the site by truck. The developer says the units will have even more timber than those of hotels assembled entirely from lumber on site, helping suppress the sound between units.

In Taos, a four-story Holiday Inn Express had been rejected three times by the planning commission. After a contentious meeting, the board recommended the city council in Taos approve the hotel.

Expand the art center and will the donations arrive?

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — Build it and they will give? That’s the assumption at Crested Butte, where the town council has signed off on a $15 million expansion of the Center for the Arts.

Directors of the center must still get pledges for more than half the money, reports the Crested Butte News. Directors reason that with something underway, it will be easier to raise the money than if it’s just a plan.

By a vote of 4-1, the Crested Butte Town council agreed with that logic. “For me, it’s a leap of faith into the known,” said Jim Schmidt, a long-time councilman. Mayor Glenn Michel, although voting for this, said government likes certainty, not faith.

The expansion will yield 38,000 square feet of a more flexible theater space, studio, galleries, and exhibition areas.

Crested Butte wants its cut on coal-mine royalties

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. —Crested Butte, once a coal-mining town, now wants to have mining entirely in its rear-view mirror. But just across Kebler Pass, also within Gunnison County, are coal mines that produce a little bit of revenue for local jurisdictions.

A reduction in the royalty rate assessed the coal being mined has been proposed, but Crested Butte would like to hang on to what it gets, nearly $27,000 last year. The school district received nearly $50,000, reports the Crested Butte News.

Pushback against Aspen Ski Co. on Holy Cross lobbying

CARBONDALE, Colo. — Now comes a charge of hypocrisy directed at the Aspen Skiing Co. and its efforts to effect broad, sweeping policies in response to the risk of climate change.

Electricity that powers the snowmakers and chairlifts at Aspen, Snowmass, and other ski areas opened by the company comes from an electrical cooperative called Holy Cross Energy. Holy Cross also serves other communities from Vail to Rifle along the I-70 corridor.

Holy Cross is a minority owner in Colorado’s newest coal plant, Comanche 3, located at Pueblo, Colo., which opened in 2010. But Holy Cross has aggressively sought to encourage renewable energy. These latter efforts have largely come in the last decade after the Aspen Skiing Co. began trying to get directors elected.

Tom Turnbull, a rancher from Carbondale and a former director of Holy Cross for 33 years, cries foul in a letter published in The Aspen Times. He accuses the company of hypocrisy in “trying to promote their green image when they themselves are undoubtedly one of the biggest carbon polluters in the valley coupled with their private jet-setting clientele …”

He shares his skepticism about climate change science and also the efforts to create 100 percent renewables while keeping rates affordable. “They better be prepared to face the music and it isn’t going to be a waltz.”

Carbon and the conundrum of long-distance travel

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Thousands of people gathered in Telluride over the Memorial Day weekend for Telluride Mountainfilm. The festival had films documenting the problems caused by the changing climate, which scientists say is mostly due to the greenhouse gas emissions being put into the atmosphere.

What can Telluride do to reduce its role in global warming? Stop having festivals, writes Glenn Raleigh, a local resident, in a letter published in the Telluride Daily Planet. He estimated that Bluegrass Festival, to be held in late June, will cause people to drive between 1.2 and 2 million miles.

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Why the push to allow pollution and waste?

A drilling rig in the Piceance Basin, southeast of Rangely, Colo. Photo/Allen Best

The puzzling push to allow pollution and waste on federal lands

by Allen Best

Donald Trump, in running for president, vowed to make public lands more accessible for oil-and-gas drilling. He also promised to roll back regulations. When it came to methane emissions, his anti-regulation agenda failed thanks to three Republicans in the U.S. Senate who walked across the partisan divide to preserve the Methane Waste Prevention Rule.

The rule, adopted by the Obama administration last November after three years of public review, requires companies operating on federal and Indian lands to look for and repair leaks, allows only minimal burning, and prohibits direct venting into the atmosphere. Proponents said the regulations can result in 40 to 45 percent of the gas otherwise wasted being captured.

What motivated this push to allow a valuable public resource to be wasted in a way that pollutes? Are we really desperate for the energy? The stock market was barreling along even before the election, and after the election it became delirious.

Energy is cheap. A decade ago, the peak oil argument was credible. A book about the same time was called “High Noon for Natural Gas.” It looked like end times for our fossil fuel-enabled civilization. Natural gas ran as high at $14.50 per million Btu and the gas we buy to fuel our cars ran over $4 in metropolitan Denver.

Now natural gas is running a little over $3 and the oil prices are running about $50 a barrel, meaning gas prices at Denver-area stations run about $2.30 per gallon for standard unleaded. Hydrocarbons have become so plentiful globally that OPEC continues to hold back production in an effort to raise prices.

Cheap energy enables waste. I see it almost every day. As I live near a busy commercial area, strangers park in front of my house constantly. Returning from yoga or shopping or the bar, many get in cars, turn on the engine, and then just sit there, idling, while scrolling through Facebook or whatever. Sometimes they sit idle for a half-hour while stinking up the neighborhood.

More unnerving was my recent visit to a nature-science school in Eagle County. The building housing the school has a LEED platinum certification, the very highest attainment for environmental performance. But in the parking lot was the very worst of environmental performance. A Cadillac Escalade pulled up next to me. It gets 15 miles per gallon in the city, 22 on the highway. Idling in a parking space, it gets even worse: zero miles per gallon. But that is what the driver was doing, thumbing through her smart phone on the best of spring days, neither warm nor cold. Cost was no issue.

In winter, on even the chilliest days, I see store doors constantly left wide open, to make them more inviting to shoppers. Ditto in summer, when the air conditioner is blasting. We heat the great outdoors in winter and cool it in summer.

The federal regulations were modeled on those adopted by Colorado in 2014. A survey by Keating Research issued in April 2016 found that 8 of 10 oil and gas company representatives interviewed said that they were profiting, coming out even, or paying out just a little more than they collected in new revenue. Certainly not onerous.

I consume both natural gas and oil, and I recognize that all energy extraction and production has impacts. So does renewable energy. But to let methane be wasted to pollute the atmosphere when we’re awash in cheap energy is puzzling.

Why did Congress nearly repeal these regulations? The disagreement seems to be over whether states should make the rules, even those on federal lands. It’s similar to the dispute about water.

But what a bizarre flag to battle under, the right to allow waste and pollution. Whatever were Rep. Mike Coffman, Sen. Cory Gardner and Colorado’s other Republicans in Congress thinking?

Thanks goodness for the three senators who crossed the aisle: John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine.

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