Will high-pressure ridge leave Rockies high and dry?

Will high-pressure ridge in Pacific cause Rockies to stay dry ’til January?

Chilling new evidence of link to melting Arctic sea

by Allen Best

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. – Might it be a dry Christmas in Colorado, Utah and perhaps other locations, the result of yet again a high-pressure ridge that has formed off the West Coast?

That’s one possibility suggested by Eric Kuhn after examining two stories out of California posted on Tuesday. Kuhn is in the final months as general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, but he continues to monitor the news that affect water users on the upper Colorado River.

Eric Kuhn

The two, overlapping postings concern formation of a high-pressure ridge off the West Coast that causes moisture-laden storms to go northward. Whistler has been getting hammered with snow. Mammoth? No, not all that much.

One posting forecasts a “remarkably persistent weather pattern will begin to develop across North America and adjacent oceanic regions.” The writer, Daniel Swain, writing on Weathewest.com, pointed out that “patterns like this have a tendency to become self-reinforcing, lasting for much longer than more typical transient weather patterns and leading to prolonged stretches of unusual weather.”

The result: “an extended, multi-week warm and dry spell” in California while “much of the East Coast shivers through repeated blasts of cold, Arctic air.” Swain expects this pattern to last “at least two weeks” but suggests possibly longer.

The posting, based largely on a peer-reviewed paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Geophysical Research, runs 2,400 words. It is well worth reading. Swain, the writer, coined the phrase “ridiculously resilient ridge” in 2014, during the drought in California.

Kuhn points out that when this stubborn high-pressure ridge forms off the West Coast, it has always produced problems for California and sometimes for the Rocky Mountains, too. He would have you imagine a clock, the storms moving across the top of the clock and down to the right, just as some of these storms have slid down into the Great Plains and others down the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

Will the weather be like clock-work this year? Forecasts of more than a week or two, if improving, remain subject to a great deal of variability, he points out.

That same posting by Swain in Weatherwest.com discusses the link between disappearing Arctic sea ice and the formation of the high-pressure ridge off the West Coast.

“The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world, and sea ice has been disappearing at a greater rate than had projected by climate models—a rapid rate of change…” Swain writes. He goes on to say that there is no clear link between the vanishing sea ice and the persistent high-pressure ridge but that does not discount the possibility.

However, on the same day, a study conducted by scientists from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California claims to have found evidence of this link.

The Los Angeles Times summarized the study in this way: “Using complex new modeling, the scientists have found that rapidly melting Arctic sea ice now threatens to diminish precipitation over California by as much as 15% within 20 to 30 years.”

The story goes on to say that the study, published in the journal Nature Communications “provides compelling evidence of the link between the disappearance of sea ice in the Arctic and the buildup of high ridges of atmosphere pressure over the Pacific Ocean. Those ridges push winter storms away from the state, causing drought.”

Kuhn, from his purview in Colorado, extends the story inland. “To me, it’s a potentially troublesome for both California and Colorado and the states between.”

The result of that high-pressure ridge was devastating to California in 2012 and 2013 and, to a lesser extent, in 2014 and 2015. Colorado fared better, as storms tracked down the spine of the Rockies. But that weather system left Utah more exposed. “We had one winter where Colorado was in decent shape, but Utah was in bad shape.”

Lake Mead from Hoover Dam in late 2016. Photo/Allen Best

This new research will undoubtedly be discussed next week in the hallways of Caesar’s Palace, site of the annual Colorado River Water Users Association. The story during the 21st century in the Colorado River Basin has been of the effects of rising temperatures but also the effects of that high-pressure ridge along the West Coast and its impact on states from Wyoming to Arizona.

Mountain towns in Colorado and other interior states are less directly affected than those of the Sierra Nevada. Even in drought years, headwater valleys usually get water. But Powell, Mead and other reservoirs of the Colorado River Basin have been slowly ebbing.

About 70 percent of all the water in the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry, at the head of the Grand Canyon, below Lake Powell, comes from Colorado, mostly as a result of snow. Very little water is added to the river below Lee’s Ferry. In this way, ski towns are directly connected to the vegetable fields of California’s Imperial Valley and Yuma, Ariz., source of the winter veggies their restaurants will be serving Christmas week.

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Utah’s Summit County aims for deep carbon reductions

One-time Vietnam combat pilot leads Utah county to adopt climate goals

by Allen Best

PARK CITY, Utah – Donald Trump got elected president the same day that Glenn Wright was elected councilor in Utah’s Summit County. On their respective campaign trails, though, the two men articulated very different energy visions.

Trump vowed to bring back coal, a hollow promise even then. Natural gas, cheap and plentiful, has undermined coal, but so have tumbling prices of renewables. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper noted recently that wind prices have dropped about 66 percent in the last eight years while solar prices plummeted 85 percent. “That is what is allowing us to look at this new future,” he said.

Glenn Wright

Wright, in his campaign stumping, talked about the aspiration of 100 percent renewables for all county operations by 2032. The message connected, at least just enough. Summit County leans heavily Democrat, and Wright, a Democrat, got 53 percent of the votes in his race. Trump got 35 percent in the county.

In turn, Wright was able to persuade his fellow elected councilors in Summit County to adopt a resolution on Oct. 6 that calls for rapid decarbonization in Summit County, first in government operations and then in the broader community.

Summit County has much company in this. Nearly 50 towns, cities, and counties from Portland, Ore., to Orlando, Fla., have embraced goals of 100 percent renewables even as the federal government under Trump has been tilting policies to favor fossil fuels. At last count, 150 mayors had also adopted the Sierra Club-orchestrated pledge of 100 percent renewables.

Among mountain resort towns, South Lake Tahoe had formally embraced a goal of 100 percent renewables last spring. So has Kit Carson Electric, which serves Taos and other ski areas in northern New Mexico. Aspen Electric achieved that feat several years ago, although it should be noted —as conservative bloggers do with prickly, gotcha pride—that the utility only serves a half to two thirds of the town and none of the ski area.

No longer delusional goals

A decade ago, these 100 percent aspirations, even if confined to electrical production, were dismissed as frothy, even delusional. Renewables were too expensive and innately intermittent: “The wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine,” was the old mantra.

You still hear those tired responses, but not from utilities. They have figured out how to integrate renewables at higher and higher proportions. And cost? Renewables have become much lower in price than coal. New markets are being created to move electrons around the grid, creating price efficiencies. Much more is likely to happen in demand-side management.

“It’s here, it’s happening faster and faster. We don’t know where it will go,” said David Eves, chief executive of the Public Service Co. of Colorado at the recent Center for the New Energy Economy conference in Fort Collins, Colo. “This is very different than even five years ago.”

But 100 percent renewable aspirations adopted by local governments remain stretch goals. Almost no one, if anybody, knows exactly how they will be achieved. Many are couched more safely in terms of carbon neutrality. That means continued use of fossil fuels will be offset by production of renewable or at least non-carbon energy.

Now, some jurisdictions are flexing their jaws for an even bigger bite: economy-wide carbon neutrality, including transportation and heating.

Park City, the largest city in Summit County, may be singular in the scale of its ambition. Elected officials there propose to transition city government operations to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2022. But a decade later, the community is to be altogether carbon-neutral, not just in electricity but in all energy use.

Luke Cartin, Park City’s environmental sustainability manager, claims this is the most ambitious goal in the country. If that claim cannot be verified, as no agency tracks claims, it seems quite possible.

Wright says that he and fellow elected officials in Summit County had at least two long conversations about whether the county’s goals could be achieved. They are less ambitious than those of Park City but still transformative: an 80 percent reduction in county/community greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

“We don’t want to set goals we can’t meet,” said one of his fellow members of the county council.

In the end, the doubts were substantially diminished. “I think we came to the conclusion that these are doable goals,” says Wright.

See also: Why Neil Armstrong matters in carbon arguments

Utah’s Summit County includes a portion of . the Uintah Mountains. Photo/Summit County

Calculating risks

A native of New York state, Wright has a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and served in the U.S. Air Force for six years. During that time he was a combat pilot in Vietnam, flying 250 missions as an airborne forward air controller. His job in the light aircraft—now done by drones—was to identify the targets and direct fighters to those targets with their bombs.

Later, he had a 30-year career in industrial safety for the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. Insurance companies calculate the risks of activities, and even by the year 2000 Wright had begun to study the risks of the changing climate. He sees the risk of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions as too great for what is Summit County’s economically most important natural resource:.

That argument can be made easily in Park City. But Summit County extends to Wyoming, a broad rural expanse that veers conservative. It’s not been a factor. “I haven’t seen a lot of opposition to this,” he says. Aging ranchers, he surmises, have seen the climate change and understand the causes.

Coal-fired power plants were in the past synonymous with carbon emissions, the steam billowing from their smoke stacks a striking visual. But those coal plants have been closing in droves. Last year, transportation became the No. 1 source of CO2 emissions in the United States.

That’s also true in Summit County. The resolution adopted by county councilors identifies transportation as responsible for 47 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, electricity for 30 percent, and the balance, 23 percent, in buildings, solid waste, and land use.

The Jim Bridger Power plant is located 165 miles east of Park City along Interstate 80. Photo/Allen Best

Rocky Mountain Power is a crucial partner for both Summit County and Park City. An investor-owned utility, it delivers electricity that is currently heavy in carbon: 55 percent coal, 25 percent natural gas, with another 10 percent from hydro and the final 10 percent other non-carbon sources. But the utility is already planning to retire a significant amount of its coal generation within the next 20 years.

Cindy Crane, chief executive of Rocky Mountain Power, said in a keynote address at the Western Power Summit that her company is fully committed to working with Park City, Summit County, and other jurisdictions in its service territory that want to transition to renewables.

She stressed two things: energy efficiency and the transition to electrified transportation.

“The best energy is the energy we don’t use,” said Crane, who has been with Rocky Mountain Power for 26 years.

How does a utility make money selling less of its product? Well, in the case of Rocky Mountain Power, and many other utilities, the gap might well be filled by demand for electricity for transportation.

“It’s a different world out there than it was only a few years ago,” said Crane at the conference, held ironically at a hotel a short distance from the corporate headquarters in Broomfield, Colo., of Vail Resorts, now a major player in Utah’s Summit County.

“It’s a changing marketplace by every dimension. It’s being driven first and foremost by our customers. We are also providing new choices for our customers.”

Wright himself embodies some of these new shifts. He drives a plug-in electric car. Roof-top solar allows him to produce most of the power he consumes.

Pathways in Summit County to attainment

The pathway that Wright envisions is to seize opportunities for local generation of both solar and wind as well as in other parts of Utah. “Reducing cost trends in both generation and storage, I believe, will provide opportunities for additional roof-top solar as well as local development of micro-grids with storage.”

Electrified transportation is another pathway. The county has 6 electric buses and will get 7 more next year. Wright hopes that the county government can fully transition to electric vehicles in 5 to 10 years. Then, there’s a future where most new cars will be electric.

Park City’s municipal building is an old school house, now retrofitted with solar panels on the roof. Photo/Allen Best

Buildings pose a more difficult challenge. They’re commonly heated by burning natural gas. Retrofitting them to be heated by electricity would be a major undertaking. For that matter, you may replace a car every 10 to 20 years. Buildings more commonly remain for a century or more. Many of those in Summit County are 20 to 40 years old. The city hall in Park City, an old school, is much, much older.

Utah has been sluggish about requiring energy efficiency in buildings. It has only adopted the 2009 international building code, a brisk improvement over older codes but still two code-updates behind the most recent code update of 2015. Local jurisdictions in Utah are not permitted to adopt their own codes. Homebuilders, says Wright, “are interested unfortunately in the cheapest cost possible.”

Summit County has more leverage in larger developments of 10 units or more. There, county officials can negotiate higher building efficiency standards and use of non-carbon heating. That higher threshold of energy will be part of the discussion as county officials review a new project for two million square feet proposed at the base of the Vail Resorts ski area formerly called The Canyons.

Park City’s Cartin did not identify how his jurisdiction will move around the state limitations but does point to a city council resolution that all city-built facilities must be net-zero on site. Not even Aspen city officials, in approving plans for a new city hall in 2016, were willing to go that far.

Elected officials in Park City identified energy/carbon, along affordable housing and transit, as their most critical priorities.

“The pathways were not identified. The goals were set to give a sense of urgency,” said Cartin in an e-mail response to questions. “It is my role to identify the pathways to success.” He did not identify those pathways, nor did he respond to several requests for clarification.

Political will comes first

Mayor-elect Andy Beerman, a key figure on the council that adopted Park City’s goals, concedes the pathway to carbon neutrality remains unclear. He and other councilors, in adopting the goals, can generally see how about 80 percent of these goals can be achieved. The rest, he concedes, rely upon an assumption of technological advances and sheer determination. He concedes that Park City has left very little room for falling short.

But political will must precede concrete knowledge of how to achieve the goals, he says.

“We decided if we didn’t take leadership, there wasn’t a whole lot of hope,” he says. “We wanted to show it could be done. There was a lot of resistance from staff, because they thought the goal would be very difficult to reach or too expensive for the community to stomach. But as a council, we felt that climate change was an imminent threat.”

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Autonomous vehicles and the last-mile problem

Autonomous vehicle proclaimed an answer to first-mile, last-mile barrier

Story/photos by Allen Best

It’s called the first-mile, last-mile problem of mass transit, and it has vexed transportation planners forever during the automotive era. Until you make it easy to get to and from light rail and other public transit, they will remain underused.

One possible answer will be tested soon at Peña Station Next, the laboratory for autonomous and other cutting-edge technology. Peña Station is the last stop before Denver International Airport on the A-Line from downtown Denver.

There, later this year, an autonomous (self-driving) vehicle is to provide a link between the light rail line at 57th and Pena and a bus stop located four blocks away at 61st and Tower Road.

Peña Station Next is the project being driven by Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Co. in conjunction with a variety of partners. With Xcel Energy it will test creation of a microgrid, capable of generating its own electricity. It is partnering with the Colorado Department of Transportation and its future-looking RoadX program and the Regional Transportation District.

For this self-driving vehicle, Panasonic has linked with Easy Mile, a French manufacturer of self-driving vehicles that recently set up shop in Denver. The vehicle shown Monday evening offers six seats and room for six people to stand.

On a round-trip ride Panasonic’s headquarters and the Pena Station light rail, a distance of maybe two blocks, an Easy Mile engineer said the car could top out at 25 mph, but more generally was geared to go only 15 mph. During the two-block ride, it moved at only about 6 mph. It is battery operated and normally can operate for a day without a recharge.

Public officials at the ceremony proclaimed it a solution to the first-mile, last-mile problem of mass transit.

Colorado Mayor John Hickenlooper

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper predicted that autonomous vehicles will “cure so many solutions to the things that have been vexing.” Broad adoption of the self-driving vehicles can improve air quality, reduce congestion and expand use of existing infrastructure, he said. He also pointed out that 95 percent of highway fatalities are the result of human errors.

In Colorado, Rutt Bridges has been boring down into the transformational possibilities of the new technologies in transportation. Hickenlooper mentioned that Bridges spokes last week at the Western Governors Association meeting in Arizona. There were  17 governors there, said Hickenlooper, and Bridges had “every one of them of them in the palm of his hands.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was equally expansive in his description of the importance of the technology.

“This is the key, the first and the last mile is the powerful piece we’re missing in so many situations around Denver,” he said at the gathering held at Panasonic’s headquarters at Pena Station Next. “This is a special day in the life of this city, and a special day in the life of our state,” he said.

That was also the view of Florine Raitano, director of partnership development and innovation with the Denver Regional Council of Governments.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock

“What we need is a well-designed feeder system to deliver passengers,” she said after the remarks. “Easy Mile is just one of many potential technical solutions. There are more to come.”

Raitano, a former mayor of Dillon, Colo., said she was excited by the technological solutions. Some mobility choices in 15 to 20 years will probably be the same as now, but many will be things we haven’t imagined yet.

Dave Genova, the general manager of RTD, said “some hurdles with state, federal and city regulations” remain to be cleared before the prototype at Pena Station Next can move forward. He did not specify.


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Looking for Orion’s Belt on a snowy Idaho evening

To see Orion’s Belt in the dark sky from the snowy streets of Ketchum

by Allen Best

KETCHUM, Idaho – Ketchum recently  was awarded a still-rare designation by the International Dark-Sky Association. The question is whether that designation as a dark sky community can be monetized through what is called astro-tourism.

The premise of astro-tourism is that people really do want to see Aquarius, Orion, and other constellations that were readily visible to Biblical shepherds.

Before Ketchum, the International Dark-Sky Association has made 15 other such community designations in the world, 11 of them in North America. They include Sedona and Flagstaff in Arizona and Westcliffe and Silver Cliff in Colorado.

The organization has also designated several dozen dark sky parks around the world, including Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

To be eligible for the designation, communities must adopt regulations that strongly discourage light pollution. Ketchum did that in 1999 with an ordinance that requires shielding of outdoor lighting fixtures and minimizes light output. The city council in the last year adopted updated regulations that may be among the most up-to-date in the nation.

If there were still some resistance to lighting regulations 15 years ago, they have disappeared. “I have yet to hear somebody say, ‘I hate the dark sky ordinance,’” says Micah Austin, the city’s planning director. Applicants for building permits accept the restrictions, and Austin thinks that’s because the community embraces the intent.

“I think people recognize the ability to walk out onto a snowy street in the middle of winter and seek Orion’s Belt is an experience they want to have. I think they recognize that their lives are made better.”

Unlike in so many matters, where planning initiatives are met with silence or opposition, there was strong and supportive public engagement to the updated regulations (See story below).

For the city to maintain its status, it must continue to protect the night sky through public outreach, including dark sky events.

Nearly 80 percent of people in North America are unable to see the Milky Way Galaxy from where they live, the result of light pollution, most of it created in the latter half of the 20th century, according to the “New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness,” by Fabio Falchi and others.

In Ketchum, the push toward slowing the encroachment of artificial lights was driven by Dr. Stephen Pauley. Now 77, he was an eye, nose, and throat specialist who moved to Ketchum and Sun Valley in 1991. Friends call him Dr. Dark.

Speaking with a New York Times reporter in 2003, he described dark sky preservation as a matter primarily of education. “It does not mean living in darkness,” said Pauley. “It means shining light where it belongs, on the ground or pavement, not in someone’s eyes, window or up into a space where it is wasted.”

This year, talking with the Idaho Mountain Express, he compared the loss of the night sky to that of coral reefs in the ocean or ice in the Arctic.

He said he hopes Ketchum becomes a model for other cities in the Mountain West. “There has to be an understanding of the dark.”

An even more important designation may be forthcoming, possibly before the end of 2017. The town is at the core of a proposed International Dark-Sky Reserve for central Idaho. It would be a first in the United States.

In Colorado, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff also hope to achieve that distinction along with the broader Wet Mountain Valley, but the effort to adopt regulations may have been slowed by the recall of two of the three Custer County commissioners. The proposed restrictions are part of the disagreement.

John Barentine, program manager for the International Dark-Sky Association, says that Ketchum’s application was more explicitly about driving tourism than other community applications.

“Like the others, it was partly about quality of life and preserving community character, but I think pretty clearly they hope to capitalize on people who will be coming to see the night sky from the to-be-established Reserve,” he tells Mountain Town News.

“‘Astrotourism’ is a bona fide motivator, particularly in the American West, driving establishment of not only protected areas like International Dark Sky Parks, but also so-called ‘Amenity West’ communities like Ketchum,” says Barentine.

Foot-candles, Kelvin scales and creating community buy-in for dark sky measures

Ketchum has updated its dark sky regulations in two key ways.

First, the new law establishes a cap on the color temperature for outdoor lights. Incandescent bulbs have a maximum of 2700 Kelvin. But LED lights allow a much broader range of Kelvin temperatures, even up to 8,000 and 9,000 Kelvin. The latter is blue and piercing, with the feel of a meat freezer.

The harm? Plenty, says the American Medical Association, which has issued a report that finds lights with higher Kelvin temperatures are harmful to humans and to wildlife, disrupting circadian rhythms.

Ketchum planners proposed a cap of 3,000 Kelvin lights, but community members wanted the gold standard: 2,700 Kelvin.

Micah Austin, the planning director, say it may be the most stringent standard in the nation.

A second provision establishes a light-trespass matrix of light infiltrating across property lines.  Light from somebody’s porchlight inevitably will shine into an adjacent property, what is called light trespass. But this establishes the limit.

How can you tell what’s too much? The town government has a meter to use in response to complaints, but an app that can be downloaded to smart phones does a good job of measuring the foot-candle brightness that would violate the standard.

Regulation will be complaint driven, but Austin says there’s strong community buy-in to these standards.

Part of that buy-in has been driven by the active participation of the Idaho Conservation League, which has an active presence in Ketchum. — Allen Best

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Amory Lovins’s long, soft, and creatively optimistic path

Amory Lovins has harvested bananas 61 times from his solar-passive house near Aspen since the early 1980s. Photo used with permission, ©Judy Hill Lovins

Amory Lovins’s long, soft, and creatively optimistic path

by Allen Best

Lovins recently traveled from his home near Aspen to talk about growing bananas at 7,100 feet in the Colorado Rockies. The house was built in the early 1980s, he told an audience at an energy conference held at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and since then he’s had 66 harvests.

But his point wasn’t really about the bananas. It was about the energy used to grow the bananas.

Temperatures in the Aspen area then could reach 46 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, he said. “But my house has no combustion (furnace),” he went on to say. “That is so 20th century.”

Lovins, considered by many to be among the most important thinkers about energy of the last half-century, has told about his bananas many times and in many places. It’s his look-see visual proof for the enduring theme of his career. For decades he has been saying that we need to embrace energy efficiency through both more thoughtful design and readily available technology.

His thoughts cohered In 1976 a seminal essay published in Foreign Affairs called “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” He was a young scholar at Oxford then. An Arab oil embargo in 1973 had left people in block-long lines waiting for their chances to refuel cars at gas pumps. The United States was binging on construction of new coal-fired power plants and also enraptured with nuclear energy even as the arms race of the Cold War continued.

In his essay, Lovins defined the soft energy path as a future where energy efficiency and renewable energy sources steadily replace a centralized energy system based on fossil and nuclear fuels.

Lovins, a friend of David Brower, the famous long-time leader of the Sierra Club, argued not environmental ethics but rather the business case. You should do it because you will save money, he said.

He made that same case in Fort Collins, at a conference sponsored by the Center for the New Energy Economy. His house near Old Snowmass, he explained, is designed with 99 percent passive solar and 1 percent active solar. Naturally, it’s super insulated, but even the stale air is processed to recover heat. The payback on this 1982 technology was about 10 months. The house, he added, has now inspired 40,000 such passive-solar houses.

On the dais at the energy conference, Lovins barely paused, the numbers and facts and thoughts rolling out precisely, pleasantly, and always with supreme authority, as if he was the smartest guy in the room. That confidence annoys lots of people, but they concede: He probably is the smartest guy in most rooms where he speaks.

Elizabeth Kolbert, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was among those who have been to Lovins’s house to see his bananas and hear his gospel. “He is routinely described, even by people who don’t particularly like or admire him, as a ‘genius,’” Kolbert wrote in a 2007 report for the New Yorker. The story was headlined “Mr. Green: Environmentalism’s optimistic guru Amory Lovins.”

Responding to that profile, David Roberts, then with Grist, conceded Lovins’s genius. “Reading Lovins for the first time can be a life-changing experience, one of those moments when your entire perception of the world shifts and you see everything in a new light,” Roberts wrote. “But there’s the nagging thought. Lovins can always talk and explain and persuade better than we can—he’s a friggin’ genius—but the intuitive question keeps returning.”

That intuitive question in 2007 was why wasn’t this happening, this new world of energy that Lovins had then been describing for three decades. The Economist, which has tracked Lovins’s work frequently through the years, in 2008 said this:

“Though he is now 60, Mr Lovins shows no signs of slowing down. The Sage of Snowmass is still busy coming up with big new ideas, though if history is any guide, they will take a while to catch on. Watch this space—for ten to 20 years.”

Almost a decade later, it does appear finally that Lovins’s predictions are coming true. Whether it is happening quickly enough given the ever-more troubling news about global greenhouse gas emissions is the big question.

But Lovins, as the New Yorker headline in 2007 suggested, has always been one to look into the future with a sly, knowing smile, not a frown. At the recent conference, Colorado’s former governor, Bill Ritter, asked about optimism vs. pessimism.

In his answer, Lovins cited the counsel of his late friend, the Sierra Club’s Brower, who had described optimism and pessimism as being on “opposite sides of the same coin, the same irresponsible surrender to fatalism, in which you treat the future as fate and not choice, and not taking responsibility for creating the future you want.”

“We call it applied hope,” Lovins went on to say, referring to his think-tank, the Rocky Mountain Institute. “It’s not theoretical hope. It’s not anywhere near blind optimism. It’s making choices each day to create a world worth being hopeful about,” he said.

“You can’t depress people into action,” he added.

Tankers, presumably carrying oil, roll through downtown Denver. Photo/Allen Best

Earlier in the program, Lovins had described the industrial titans of the early 20th century: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and John Rockefeller. The three men changed the world in ways that are now very much familiar.

Until very recently, with the arrival of LED lighting, most of our light came from incandescent bulbs, little changed from Edison’s invention. We’re mostly still driving internal-combustion cars fueled by the oil that made Rockefeller a name synonymous with wealth.

But we’re on the cusp of great change “because we have 21st century technology and speed colliding head-on with 20th century and even 19th century institutions, rules, and cultures.”

“The first two of these great industries are coming together to eat the third one.”

Lovins sees a dramatic reduction in demand for oil and tough times ahead for utilities that try to stick to existing business models. We’re on the cusp of massive adoption of electric cars. (See MTN story about adoption rates in Colorado). The batteries of those EVs will then be connected to the electrical grid, storing renewable energy. More renewable energy can be generated locally, instead of the giant central station power plants favored by utilities for the last 60 years.

Wind now undercuts all other new energy sources; power-purchase agreements with utilities last year averaged 2.5 cents a kilowatt-hour and some recently have come in at 1.2 cents a kilowatt-hour. That’s lower than coal, lower than gas, lower than just about anything. The resource has been enlarged by two-thirds, he added “not because the wind blew harder, but because we got better at capturing it.”

Electric cars, cheap renewables, and what do you get? “This is a perfect storm brewing for the oil and car industries,” he said.

Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter interviews Amory Lovins at the Center of the New Energy Economy conference on Oct. 30. Photo/Maury Dobbie

Lovins frequently invoked his 2012 book, “Reinventing Fire,” and its “rigorous” research that shows how to triple U.S. efficiency and quintuple renewables by 2050, eliminating the need for coal, oil, and nuclear energy and a third less natural gas. This would “save $5 trillion in net-present value, grow the economy 2.6 fold, strengthen natural security and cut carbon emission 282 to 286 percent.”

This can all be accomplished by adoption of smart policies at the state and local levels and driven by businesses seeking to maximize profits. For inflexible utilities and oil and gas companies, though, these changes pose an existential risk, he said.

“You’re really a markets guy,” said Ritter, the former governor, before asking whether Lovins thought markets could achieve what its needed in a timely manner.

“Where allowed to work, yes, but policy and other factors can get in the way,” Lovins answered. But markets are good at short-term allocation of scarce resources. They were never meant to substitute for politics, ethics or faith.

Referring to “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution,” a book Lovins wrote with his ex-wife, Hunter Lovins, and Paul Hawken, he said that “markets make a great servant, a bad master, and a worse religion.”

Don’t renewables get subsidies? Yes, but they are being phased out, Lovins answered—and besides, other forms of energy also have received subsidies and continue to get them.

The Aspen Skiing Co.’s Auden Schendler, who once worked at Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute, believes that the big story is that “the trends have caught up to his predictions. Solar, wind, and batteries have finally started to decline in cost in ways that can enable a takeover of traditional technologies; and nukes, coal, and combustion engines are going extinct for all the reasons Amory has long argued,” he said in an e-mail.

“The challenge has always been how quickly this will all play out, and whether markets, such as they are, will be enough to get us to the finish line before the planet is cooked. For all the good news, the unfortunate fact is we’re not making it, as global emission data released today show.”

That was on Nov. 13, the start of the world climate conference in Bonn. In the Global Carbon Project, a group of scientists reported a 2 percent increase in burning of fossil fuels in 2017 after nearly no growth in 2014, 2015, or 2016, mostly because of increased burning of coal by China. “It was a bit staggering,” said one of the scientists, Ralph Keeling, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We race headlong into the unknown.”

Carbon dioxide emissions measured by Keeling’s father, Charles David Keeling, on Mauna Loa in Hawaii in April 1958 were 317 parts per million. By the time Lovins’s Foreign Affairs essay was published in 1976 they were at 334 ppm. Now, they’re at 409.

The message from Colorado State, though, was don’t get depressed, but do get active—and make a buck along the way.

This was in the Nov. 15 issue of Mountain Town News, a weekly e-magazine sent to subscribers. For subscription details, see red boxes at upper-right.

For access to the videotape of this and other sessions at the conference, see: http://energytransition.colostate.edu/symposium-2017/videotaped-sessions-2017/

The conference was sponsored by Energy Institute and the School of Global Environmental Sustainability, both at Colorado State University, and the Center for the New Energy Economy.


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Electric car sales and the expanding lily pond

Will electric car sales become like the pond with proliferating lily pads?

Many mountain resort towns, including Aspen, have been installed charging stations.

EVs still small share of market share, but that could change

by Allen Best

Remember the riddle about the lily pond that begins with one lily, the number doubling each day? The pond seems empty even when it has become an eighth filled. But you can do the math for the three days beyond.

That riddle comes to mind when Will Toor talks about the adoption rate for electric vehicles in Colorado. Today they constitute just 10,000 or so among the 5 million-plus cars, trucks, and motorcycles. But the growth rate for EVs has averaged 41 percent since 2012, and this year sales are up 73 percent over the same months of last year.

Toor, the transportation program director for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, sees this progression as evidence for a coming tipping point in transportation electrification. Like the lilies, this automotive pond will soon look very different.

“We are clearly headed toward lower-carbon electricity, and we now seem to be getting to the tipping point in electrification of transportation,” says Toor, who has a doctorate in physics. Sales will double within three years at this rate of growth. With certain policy supports, Colorado could have a million EVs by 2030, he adds.

Colorado now has the 6th largest market share of EVs in the country, behind California and other West Coast states, Hawaii, and Vermont. Fort Collins, Boulder, and the Roaring Fork Valley stand out as early adopters, says Toor.

To be sure, there are some who remain skeptical, seeing more measured and incremental growth unlike the quick adoption of smart phones and other new wrinkles in technology. EVs, they say, do not obviously represent a transformative improvement for consumers as compared to gas- and diesel-fueled vehicles.

State governments, however, want to smooth the way for EVs, creating charging infrastructure to create comfort for potential buyers. Colorado agencies propose to spend $10.3 million of the state’s $68 million share of the Volkswagen settlement for charging stations or fueling stations for zero-emission passenger cars and trucks. The settlement is a result of Volkswagen’s admission that it tampered with its diesel cars to allow more emissions than permitted by the Clean Air Act.

In anticipation of that settlement, Colorado a year ago was moving to join Utah and Nevada in creating charging infrastructure on interstate highways—and, in some places, beyond. Soon, it will be possible to drive from Kansas to the Pacific Ocean with some sort of fast-charging infrastructure guaranteed about every 50 miles. But there are still gaps, such as between Denver and Summit County.

Last year, Colorado also released a tiered program for implementation of electric charging stations and other alternative fuels on secondary highways, such as along U.S. 285 between Denver and Buena Vista and along U.S. 36 between Denver and Estes Park. Other corridors, including U.S. 40 and U.S. 50, are also being targeted for alternative fueling stations.

More policy supports may be on the way as advisors to Gov. John Hickenlooper put together strategies to support the governor’s executive order, issued July 11, “supporting Colorado’s clean energy transition.”

The order directs state agencies to develop a statewide electric vehicle plan by Jan. 1 to build out key charging corridors that “will facilitate economic development and boost tourism across the state while reducing harmful air pollution.”

Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities have also identified electrification of transportation as crucial to achieving their greenhouse gas reduction goals. Denver is aiming for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050.

The Salt Lake Valley each winter suffers through temperature inversions that trap pollutants from cars, trucks and buildings.

In Salt Lake City, vehicle electrification is seen as a crucial strategy for addressing the pollution that badly fouls the air during winter. Temperature inversions trap local pollution in the valley, leaving many of the one million residents of the metropolitan area wheezing, hacking, and scratching their eyes.

“It’s absolutely miserable,” says Nick Norris, communities and neighborhoods planning director. The pollution is also unhealthy, exacerbating asthma and even causing spikes in heart attacks. Medical authorities have attributed 1,000 to 2,000 premature deaths to the air pollution.

Transportation is the single largest source of the pollution, followed by exhausts from heating buildings, according to analysis by the state government. Electric power plants are located well away from Salt Lake.

This clear and obvious problem of pollution is causing more rapid acceptance of electric vehicles in the Salt Lake Valley, says Norris. It also fits with the goals of the city to reduce carbon emissions from transportation and home heating 80 percent by 2040.

Rocky Mountain Power, the electrical utility for Salt Lake City as well as Park City and Moab, supports this transition with installation of charging stations. And why shouldn’t it? Electric cars represent new demand even as improved energy efficiency has leveled off and even caused declines from other sectors. “It’s a different world out there than it was only a few years ago,” said Cindy Crane, chief executive of Rocky Mountain Power at the Western Power Summit last week.

Utah now leads the nation in percentage growth in EV sales, followed by Nevada, North Carolina, and Colorado. About 1.2 percent of all cars in Colorado are now electric, compared to more than 4 percent of all cars in California.

Tesla several years ago installed fast-charging stations in Lusk, Wyo., located in eastern Wyoming. It is the county seat for one of the nation’s least-populated counties, Niobrara. Photo/Allen Best.

Wyoming, too, doesn’t want to be left behind. It joined with the effort to put electric charging infrastructure along major highways in concert with other Western states, despite the lack of current demand. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, at at the Center for the New Energy Economy conference  in Fort Collins this week, characterized it as a chicken-and-egg situation. But given the importance of tourism in Wyoming, he said, “we don’t want to be left behind. We don’t want to be the gap state.”

Federal tax credits of $7,500 are available everywhere, but Colorado buyers have an additional incentive of $5,000 in state tax credits of, bringing an electric car so ld by Boulder Nissan, one of the West’s busiest electric-car dealers, down to about $22,500.

Boulder Nissan’s Nigel Zeid says tax credits will not always be needed to foster sales of electric vehicles. “This is like when you have a kid in college,” said Zeid, a member of the Colorado Electric Vehicle Coalition, a state-sponsored group. “Once you’re out (of college), you’re on your own.”

Zeid also sees range concerns diminishing. The Chevy Bolt has 238 miles of range, and Tesla’s Model X has 295 miles of range (but at a cost of $98,500). But many more models are coming with 150 miles of range, satisfactory for nearly all daily commutes. “Now that you have 150 to 200 mile range, range is not really an issue,” he says.

A Federal Highway Administration map shows existing fueling infrastructure for Colorado, Utah, and other states, not just for electricity but also hydrogen and natural gas. However, the map has been outdated in recent weeks by the announcement that Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, and Idaho will be joining in the interstate infrastructure.

A case can be made that hydrogen still represents the fuel of the future. California now has 31 fueling stations and plans more. Colorado, perhaps surprisingly, also has some hydrogen fueling stations, all in the metropolitan area. Hydrogen fuel is energy dense and can be produced from water through a variety of fuels, both renewables and natural gas.

But U.S. car manufacturers are now rushing to produce electric cars. General Motors several weeks ago announced plans to embrace an all-electric, zero-emissions future, leaving behind the internal combustion engine “General Motors believes the future is all-electric,” says Mark Reuss, the company’s head of product. Wired Magazine reports that GM plans almost two-dozen fully electric models by 2023.

Other car manufacturers have also announced plans to offer new EV models. China and India are embracing electrified transportation as they develop their economies and try to tame emissions that have fouled skies and scarred lungs. China, Britain, and France all plan to ban sales of vehicles powered by fossil fuels but have not set dates.

Some see the transition to electric vehicles happening more slowly.

“I am not sure they (EVs) will come quite as fast as some people say,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at the Western Power Summit on Oct. 24. But one indication that it will occur sooner, he went on to say, is the announcement by GM of its robust commitment to EV models.

Some bumps in the road of this transition. “Certainly, there will be some issues around lithium and cobalt, two constituents of batteries. There could be some supply challenges,” says Toor, a former mayor of Boulder. “But I don’t think they will derail electrification.”

Discounts yields 42 EVs and hybrids in group buy

From April through June, a group buy for electric vehicles was organized in the Pitkin, Garfield, and Eagle county areas (Aspen, Glenwood Springs, and Vail).

Dealers in Boulder and Loveland, plus two in Glenwood Springs, were enlisted to offer discounts on top of the $12,500 state and federal tax credits. The best deal was offered by Boulder Nissan, which offered an $8,000 discount on Leafs. Other dealers offered somewhat lesser discounts for all electric and hybrid models.

The goal of 50 EV sales in the three-county area fell short: 42 were sold. However, the goal for 25 percent expansion of charging stations by the end of this year will almost certainly be exceeded. A recent report predicted an 85 percent increase.

The program was sponsored by Clean Energy Economy for the Region. It was based on similar group buys in the Fort Collins and Boulder areas in 2015 and 2016.

Notable was the support of Holy Cross Energy, the co-operative that serves most of the three counties. Holy Cross offered rebates of $200 to EV purchasers.

Can e-bikes help decongest the highway to Yellowstone?

JACKSON, Wyo. – Now come e-bikes and the question whether they can ease the congestion of cars found in ski towns like Jackson.

The specific question at hand is whether the e-bikes should be allowed on the local trails normally frequented by pedestrians and bicycle riders. Or should they instead be restricted to streets? Jackson town officials will soon be talking with their counterparts in Teton County, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

An important distinction, according to the federal Consumer Product Safety Act, is 20 mph. That’s the maximum assisted speed when powered solely by the motor of a low-speed electric bike. However, there are some ways to use a larger motor, allowing an e-bike to go more than 30 mph without pedaling.

Brian Schilling, coordinator for Teton County Pathways, told Jackson town officials recently that e-bikes have been called a game-changer. He sees great potential for their application in Jackson during warm months.

“It changes the way people get around town, especially during the busy summer months when they don’t want to be sitting in traffic on Broadway,” he said, referring to the street that is the main street in Jackson and the primary route for many thousands of travelers going to and from Yellowstone National Park.

Crested Butte may slowly ease into paid parking

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Crested Butte is planning to take a year to gather public feedback before moving ahead with paid parking in the town’s interior.

The town has gone along with a committee’s recommendation and has allocated $45,000 for the year-long study and a community outreach effort.

“The committee feels parking in town is ‘free and easy’ and we can’t build our way out of the problem,” said Bob Nevins, town planner for Crested Butte, according to a story reported by the Crested Butte News. “I want to get people out of their cars,” said Jackson Petito, a council member.

The plan calls for paid parking along Elk Avenue, the town’s main street, and other adjoining areas. Residents will get permits. The start-up costs if the town decides to go forward will be $220,000, or about the same price as paving a parking lot.

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How the horrors of Dachau made Vail a better place

Steinberg had seen the worst of humanity at Dachau, and it drove him to try to achieve the best in Vail

by Allen Best

VAIL, Colo. – Vail o­n Sunday afternoon remembered Tom Steinberg, the man some called Dr. Tom. He was the town’s first resident physician, arriving in 1965, three years after the ski area opened and a year before the town was officially created.

He was 41 then but the most important thing in his life—and perhaps the most important thing influencing his contribution to Vail for the next half-century—was what he saw in the waning days of World War II.

Steinberg was not far off the Iowa farm where he had been reared when, as a private in the U.S. Army, he was in the first line of soldiers as the German concentration camp Dachau was liberated. He later told his son, Erik, that he almost shot a German soldier, but the German raised his hands in surrender just in time.

But there was the concentration camp itself, horrible testimony of the capacity of people to treat other human beings in inhumane ways. That’s what he saw at age 21.

Later, in Vail, as a doctor but also as a community leader, with several stints on the town council as well as other civic enterprises, Steinberg sometimes shared his war-time experience. That, said those who knew him best, played a large role in his thinking and in his motivations. He had seen the worst.

But he had also seen the best, the effort by America and its allies to right wrongs in the world. That was part of humanity, too. And that shaped his patient but clear vision for Vail.

He died in late September at age 93. No, he corrected the attendant when he checked into the hospital a few days before his death. He was 93 and a half. As one speaker at the memorial service, he was a stickler for details.

The war had also given him the opportunity to learn to ski in the months afterward in Austria. Then later, the GI Bill allowed him to continue through college and pursue the dream both he and his mother had had: that he would become a doctor.

As a physician in Missouri and then in New Jersey, he met his wife, Florence Ann Banashek, a nurse, who was the daughter of a Pennsylvania coal miner, the youngest of 11 children.

In Vail, they made an interesting couple. He tended to be reserved, but was still very social. She had a sometimes sharp tongue and brusque manner and had no use for what she perceived to be phoniness. She cared deeply about creating a quality community in its various dimension: physical, social, and environmental. She was a force in Vail in her own right. She said what she thought. If in every different ways, they very fundamentally operated with a shared vision.

The medical practice there was tough for the first few years, but got better as he tended to both skiers and to miners and their families. A mine continued to operate near Vail until 1977.

He had what a friend and fellow council member, Merv Lapin, described his dry, ironic and impish sense of humor. Once, a local resident who had been flyfishing arrived at his clinic with his rod in hand and the fly hooked into his ear. Steinberg asked his patient if he had a fishing license.

Shaping Vail with his values

Steinberg was also active in public affairs. As an elected official in Vail, he had a strong environmental bent. He pushed for open space and had a large hand in pushing restraints on the smoky wood-burning fireplaces that at one time were found in every condo, creating a valley of pollution during winter inversions to rival that of a big city.

Water also held his attention. He had a hand in forming a local group, the Eagle River Watershed Council, and was involve, at least peripherally, in the cleanup of the eagle river from decades of mining pollution. He was said to have been involved, too, in the various wilderness protections.

One case involved Solomon-like wisdom. A Wall Street figure proposed a land exchange that would have provided the U.S. government 2,000 to 3,000 acres of private inholdings within Dinosaur National Monument and other federal lands. In exchange, the U.S. government would have to give up one acre at the end of a street in Vail, along a ski run, for a new home site. Environmental groups figured it was a very good deal. Steinberg did not. He would have nothing to do with auctioning off the ski mountain to the highest bidder.

He spoke out, in the early 1990s, against Colorado’s stance to limit equal rights for gays, and he stood firm on limits on guns.

Because of his name, he confided, he suspected he was the target of anti-Semitism, of which there was some in Vail. Later in his life, when Holocaust deniers began gaining attention, he spoke about what he had seen, giving many talks throughout Colorado and to local hockey youth before they traveled to Germany, where they toured Auschwitz. “Dachau re-enforced Tom’s humanity and his desire to help people, and it make him a more caring and dedicated doctor,” his friend and fellow council member Merv Lapin said at the memorial.

He was a modern liberal who believed in the role of government in making life better for the average person. If it may be perhaps precarious to put words into the mouths of those who are departed, but those who contributed to this profile had no reservations when asked what he probably thought about the Trump presidency. He would have spoken loudly about a government of big lies veering toward neo-fascism. He was just old enough to have seen personally the results of that sort of thing.

A mentor to many, he left Vail and Colorado a better place, a lesson once again in how one life can touch so many others and in so many good ways.

It has been said before. “Strange, isn’t it?” said Clarence the angel second class in “It’s a Wonderful Life” to George Bailey after creating a different version of Bedford Falls, one called Pottersville.“Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Some of those other lives were at the memorial on Sunday afternoon, traveling from Taos and Jackson Hole, Crested Butte and Denver, to testify with their presence that there had been no awful hole to be filled in Vail.

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The day that Breckenridge got lucky

Bags were packed, but then the wind shifted. Emergency over—for this time

by Allen Best

Breckenridge was full of people the day last summer that fire erupted in the nearby Tenmile Range. “It was scary. It was so close,” says Peter Grosshuesch, the town’s director of planning.

July 5 was a warm day, even at 9,600 feet in elevation. The three feet of wet, spring snow that had doused Summit County six weeks before had vanished. More important than daytime heat was uncommon overnight warmth: temperatures dropped only to about 60, instead of the normal 40s.

Grosshuesch watched the smoke billow into the sky from his office in Breckenridge, about four miles away. “Everybody got real serious, real fast,” he remembers.

Flames pushed 150 feet above the top of the trees as the fire roared through stands of lodgepole pine, both live and dead, then invaded the band of spruce-fir.

High wind can easily send firebrands aloft for a mile and onto roofs and into front yards. Residents in the most vulnerable neighborhood near Breckenridge, a rural subdivision called Peak 7, were evacuated. But some had begun wondering if this fast-moving fire would reach Breckenridge itself.

Then the winds shifted again, turning the blaze back on itself. The fire was contained and then extinguished. The emergency was over—this time.

All bets were off as the fire billowed smoke above the Tenmile range, then the wind shifted, turning the blaze back on itself. Photos/Summit County

“We were very lucky,” says Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, on whose lands the fire occurred. The winds, had they not changed, might well have pushed the fire through the rural subdivision and to the Breckenridge ski resort. Beyond was Breckenridge, the town. “It looked like there was nothing to stop it.”

The question posed by the Breckenridge fire is whether enough has been done to abate the risk. It’s a question worth pondering far beyond Colorado’s Summit County as fire season lengthens and intensifies even as construction of homes continues into what is called the wildland-urban interface.

Mountain towns this summer had many reasons to be reminded of their own risks. Smoke in Whistler from fires in the interior of British Columbia was “ungodly,” in the words Grosshuesch, who was there for a visit. Fires also raged in Montana and Idaho while the beetles killing spruce trees in southern Colorado continued northward toward Crested Butte.

This autumn, wildfire has killed 42 people in the wine country north of San Francisco and destroyed 5,700 homes and other structures. The Napa Valley has a different climate, drier and more Mediterranean, than ski towns.

But there’s also this: high mountain towns are warming, perhaps more rapidly than lower elevations. It’s possible the fire risk is also escalating more rapidly. That’s one of the possible take-aways that came within a strong wind during July of incinerating Breckenridge.

Asbestos forests

Large-scale wildfires have always occurred in high mountain valleys, if perhaps not very often. For example, paleoecological research has shown evidence of a large-scale fire in the early 1600s that burned much of the forest in the Fraser Valley, home to Winter Park.

Fires, however, were virtually unknown as resort communities were built around ski areas during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a cooler, wetter time, and many forests had been logged heavily in the century before. The trees were still relatively young, and those fires that did occur were quickly suppressed.

Breckenridge and Summit County—and many other mountain communities—continued to believe they were different, their forests more like asbestos, yet still lovely. Who among the oldest residents—and to be clear, there weren’t that many older residents in the young ski towns—could remember anything else?

That same sense of exceptionalism continued even as fires raged most of the summer of 1988 in Yellowstone National Park and then, in the 1990s, in the foothills along Colorado’s Front Range southwest of Denver.

Then came 2002, hot winds in April eviscerating the thin snowpack and producing a peak runoff six weeks early that was almost too feeble to be noticed. In the first weekend of June, major forest fires erupted near Durango, in Glenwood Springs, and west of Colorado Springs, the latter going on to burn 138,000 acres.

This rendering projects a 650 percent increase (red) in acreage burned as the result of a 1.8 degree F increase in temperature. Source: Union of Concerned Scientists and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization

Residents of Breckenridge and Summit County began looking at their nearby forests differently. They had been instinctively opposed both to timber sales and even thinning of forests. Those attitudes had been mirrored in requirements by Breckenridge and other local jurisdictions that special permits be obtained before trees could be removed from around homes. The story was told—Grosshuesch has heard it, but could not confirm it—that the writer Mitch Albom, author of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” had been fined once for cutting a tree on his property in Breckenridge.

Dead trees provided another visual reminder about the vulnerability of forests. Aging stands of lodgepole pine around Breckenridge, Vail, and several other Colorado ski towns had been weakened by drought. Aided by warming nighttime temperatures, beetles proliferated as never before observed in historical times in the Colorado Rockies.

Summit County heeded those visual cues. In 2006, the county adopted a community wildfire protection plan. A wildlife council continues to meet regularly. In 2008, voters approved property tax assessments that yield $500,000 a year for grants to assist neighborhoods and homeowners’ associations. The money can also be used to create water cisterns, to assist firefighters. A portable wood-chipper was purchased with the money, and it is taken to every street in the county at least twice a year.

Insurance companies have also pushed for efforts to provide what is called defensible space, by removing vegetation around homes. In some instances insurance companies are asking homeowners to have their properties inspected by the local fire districts.

“We used to require people to preserve trees and use them to screen development as much as possible,” says Jim Curnutte, the county planning director. “We would not let you cut down a tree. Now, we might require you to cut down a tree, because of the defensible space ordinance of the building code. If you come in for a new permit or a substantial remodel, you have to meet your defensible space requirements.”

Vegetation must be at least 30 feet from a structure and in some cases 100 feet. But under Colorado law, statutory-rule town and county governments cannot impose defensive space requirements retroactively; only home-rule governments such as Breckenridge and Pitkin County can.

Social license to cut trees

Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who is also a wildland firefighter, says that all planning now assumes fires will occur. “It’s not a matter of if but rather of when we have more fires in our community,” he says.

As a firefighter, he has worked in California and elsewhere. “I have seen homes with defensible space that were saved, and I have seen homes where vegetation is connected to houses, and those homes have been destroyed,” he says. It’s not an absolute, he adds, but he also knows that firefighters will spend more time trying to save a home with defensible space for a simple reason: they have improved chances of success.

Area above Dillon Reservoir, seen in the upper left, before thinning and then after. Photos/Denver Water

Educating homeowners about wildfire risk is important, but Gibbs say there’s often a difference in attitudes between locals and those who are second-home owners. The non-residents more generally resist efforts to impose defensible space around buildings.

In Summit County, the beetle epidemic gave the Forest Service social license to cut trees from 12,000 to 15,000 acres.

“What chance do you think there was of doing that before the bark beetle?” Fitzwilliams asks.

The Forest Service has spent $18 million in the last 10 to 12 years in forest thinning, clearing roads and trails and other work related to removing vegetation in Summit County. Some has been sold to sawmills, but there’s little revenue from that. “We have low value trees,” explains Fitzwilliams of lodgepole pine.

Denver Water has been a major partner in this new work. It collects water for diversion to the Denver metropolitan area from a tunnel at Dillon Reservoir; the agency provides water for 1.4 million people, a quarter of all Colorado residents. The water agency has found forest fires expensive. Two hot-burning fires, in 1996 and then in 2002, caused heavy erosion into Denver’s reservoirs in the foothills southwest of the city. The soils there are highly erosive and granitic by nature. The reservoirs had to be dredged, with incomplete success.

Better and less expensive than remediation, the agency decided, would be prevention.

In a program called Forest to Faucets, Denver in 2010 partnered with state and federal forestry agencies to thin forests in Summit County and the Winter Park area. The city draws water from both areas.

Fires sop up Forest Service budget

Denver Water in February announced a five-year renewal of the partnership, putting in $16.5 million to match like amounts from the state and federal agencies for continuing thinning of forests. The first phase also saw 750,000 trees being planted.

In announcing the commitment, Denver Water’s CEO Jim Lochhead said Congress should take heed of what Denver and other water providers, including Aurora and Colorado Springs are doing.Instead of allocating massive amounts of money

for putting out fires, he said, Congress should provide more money to the Forest Service for forest management in critical areas.

That same point was made by Fitzwilliams, the White River supervisor, in an August meeting with officials from Colorado ski towns. He said fire suppression used to account for 15 percent of the Forest Service budget nationally, but has grown to 55 percent. This year it will probably push 60 percent. “So much of our money is in managing these large, expensive wildfires,“ he says.

Ironically, fire suppression in the past is partly to blame for the growing threat. In recent decades, foresters have taken a more measured approach about when to let fires burn and when to put them out.

But if cutting trees is one obvious solution to the threat of fires, ecologists warn it cannot be the only answer: There are simply too many trees.

“Treatments in and of themselves are not going to save the day in terms of changing patterns of fire,” says Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont. Treatments do make sense in targeted areas, such as what Denver Water is doing, he adds. But like Fitzwilliams, he stresses that fire altogether cannot be contained. It’s part of the ecosystem. Instead, communities need to adapt themselves to living within a fire ecosystem, he says. His consultancy, working with two others, helped Summit County create its community plan.

Speaking with members of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns in August, Fitzwilliams emphasized the words “conversations” and “responsibilities” among communities, land managers, and local governments. He thinks many tools— including prescribed fire and thinning—must be employed. He hopes to see greater age diversity in trees stands and some deliberate manipulation of forests in the wildland-urban interface to promote species such as aspen, which are somewhat less fire prone.

This rendering projects a 650 percent increase (red) in acreage burned as the result of a 1.8 degree F increase in temperature. Source: Union of Concerned Scientists and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization from their report, Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk.

And warming temperatures

All this will be needed, if a trend noticed by Brad Piehl at the Peak 2 fire becomes more prevalent. He’s a watershed planner whose company, JW Associates, works with Denver, Colorado Springs, and other cities that draw water from high mountain valleys.

Piehl himself lives near Breckenridge and watched the Peak 2 fire from his home with this important characteristic: It started in lodgepole pine and, after continuing to warm up on the downed logs, then invaded spruce-fir. This is a changed dynamic, previously observed last year in Colorado’s North Park. It also puts high-mountain resorts at greater risk.

Piehl, in speaking with Colorado Association of Ski Town members in August, also showed a slide (above) that represents the changing species that may result from warmer temperatures predicted as a result of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Fire season is lengthening, some say by 75 days. That seems too much for Summit County, says Piehl. But even if it’s just 30 days more each year, “we’re still in trouble,” he adds. “That’s still a significant change.”

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UnVail challenges ski industry dominance of Vail Resorts

The men’s downhill at the World Alpine Ski Championships in 2015 drew 25,000 spectators to Beaver Creek, one of a dozen ski areas operated by Vail Resorts.
Photo/ Logan Robertson, Vail Valley Foundation

Can the UnVail of Mike Shannon and Jim Crown give Rob Katz and Vail Resorts a run for ski industry money?

by Allen Best

Vail Resorts has a new 800-pound gorilla to tangle with in the ski industry. Or maybe it’s a 700-pound gorilla. Whatever its precise size, this new company—still unnamed as of early October—has bought ski areas across the United States this year from California to Vermont. And by August, with the announced intent to purchase Utah’s Deer Valley, now consummated, some observers believed it was at parity or at least near parity with Vail Resorts, the ski industry giant.

The business strategy for this new enterprise remains unknown, which is perhaps fitting for a company that still has no name. Until it does, it might as well be called UnVail. But even that has an ironic twist, in that UnVail is at least partially the creation of former Vail executives who now live in Vail.

The new company is a joint effort of two pools of money. One side comes from the Crown family, owners of the Aspen Skiing Co. and its four ski areas and now expanding line of four-star hotels, called Limelight.

Jim Crown

The Crown family fortune comes from industrial Chicago, and it’s a remarkable story. It starts with poverty in the form of Henry Crown, who was the son of a Lithuanian immigrant sweatshop worker. He left school in eighth grade but started a business selling steel in 1915. When he died in 1990, the New York Times described him as a “billionaire whose life exemplified the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story of American industrialists.” Hotels, buildings, railroads, meat-packing plants, coal and sugar were among the assets, but also—beginning in 1958—a major stake in the aerospace industry in the form of General Dynamics.

The family still owns about 10 percent of General Dynamics, according to a Forbes profile, the family’s single largest asset. As of 2015, Forbes ranked the Crown family as the 27th wealthiest in the United States. A key figure in Aspen is Jim Crown, grandson of Lester Crown.

Mike Shannon

KSL Capital Partners is probably best understood as an enterprise of Mike Shannon. Originally from Wisconsin, he was a banker in Chicago when he was tapped at age 25 to take the reins of Vail Associates, the precursor of Vail Resorts. The holdings then consisted of Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek. That was in 1986.

In 1992, he left skiing and joined forces with New York investor Henry Kravis and another Vail executive, Larry Lichliter, to form KSL Recreation. They invested in golf course, spas and the like. That firm was sold in 2004, and in 2005 Shannon joined Erick Resnick, a former executive at Vail Resorts, to create KSL Resorts. According to his profile on the KSL website, the firm has raised over $6.5 billion in equity capital commitments and investments exclusively in travel and leisure businesses since 2005. To add intrigue, both Shannon and Resnick are said to live in Vail.

Then there’s Vail Resorts, which is no longer based in Vail but rather in the Boulder area, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. It been phenomenally successful during the last 20 years since it became a publicly owned company. Two statistics tell just how successful this enterprise has been: Stock prices were $16 at the initial public offering in 1997. On a recent Monday shares were selling for $216.

Rob Katz

During these 20 years, the number of ski areas has grown from 2 to 14, including one in Australia and Whistler Blackcomb in Canada. Two ski areas at Park City were merged to create the continent’s largest single ski area.

Vertical integration is another key feature. From airport shuttles to restaurants to rental shops, it seems that Vail Resorts has a finger in every part of the resort pie. At the center of this vertical integration and geographic expansion has been an old, simple idea: a deeply discounted annual ski pass but carefully branded under the name Epic. Rob Katz, the chief executive, has sprinted with this simple but powerful concept.

Upfront sales matter, greatly. But what may matter most, says Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management, a trade magazine, is that people spend the same total amount during a day at a ski resort, whether they bought their ticks in advance or on that day.

“So, if you, as a guest, buy your ticket in advance, you might stil l spend, say, $100 while at the area—on food, drink, retail, a lesson, etc. If you buy your ticket that day, you tend to spend less on all the other things,” he explains.

Of course, many of Vail’s customers spend well more than $100 a day. The trick of the epic Pass was securing that commitment early.

Will UnVail use the same strategy when ski pass prices at its 13 ski areas are announced in spring 2018? That was the early speculation. But Kahl says it’s an open question how UnVail will leverage its assets. He notes that in buying the former Intrawest ski areas, UnVail also gained 1,100 acres of developable land. He also notes that Shannon, at an industry meeting several years ago, before the new UnVail partnership was announced, indicated that the skiing market was ready to accommodate more real estate development and an expanded bed base.

A key place to watch this new industry show-down is at Park City, where the two resorts will compete side by side: Park City Mountain Resort, the continent’s largest, vs. Deer Valley, perennially at the top of ski rankings. The purchase was completed recently, putting UnVail now at 13 resorts across the United States that collectively host about 7 million skier visits. Vail Resorts last year did about 12 million skier visits.

Is the ski industry big enough for these two big gorillas? After all skier numbers have been flat or even declining since 2010. But the rise of Vail’s stock prices explains why this new partnership of Aspen and former Vail executives are getting in the ring. How consumers will benefit is the answer still to be provided.


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Fatal snakebite in Colorado a statistical anomaly

The trailhead for the Mount Galbraith loop, where a 31-year-old endurance athlete was bitten by a rattlesnake. Photo/Allen Best

Answers about unusual fatal snakebite will have to wait a few weeks

by Allen Best

GOLDEN, Colo. — Rattlesnakes can be found at elevations of up to 9,500 feet in Colorado. That’s higher than nearly all ski towns. But you don’t find rattlesnakes among the ski lifts. As a practical matter, most ski towns are too cold and wet for rattlesnakes.

Along the Front Range, where the Great Plains rise abruptly into the Rocky Mountains, they’re common enough, if rarely seen. The Mount Galbraith trailhead near Golden, west of Denver, warns hikers of bears and mountain lions, but not rattlesnakes.

But a rattlesnake, the most venomous of reptiles in the United States, is what killed 31-year-old Daniel Hohs on Oct. 7. He was a statistical anomaly. Snakebites are somewhat common, but only five or six fatalities occur per year in the United States, mostly in warm-weather states.

Hohs was bitten on the ankle by a 4-foot-long snake as he hiked. A physician in the area was summoned to the scene, but it took 22 minutes for paramedics to arrive and more time yet to get him to a nearby hospital, where he died.

From Chicago originally, he had a compelling story. The Chicago Tribune described his first major depressive episode just before he enrolled in the engineering school at the University of Michigan in 2004.

“I spent over three months torturing my brain, struggling to succeed in school, masking my emotions, and dealing with what I thought was stress,” he later wrote in an essay called “How Endurance Sports Saved My Life.” It was published on the ActivePerformance.org website.

Another episode in 2005, two weeks before his sophomore year, caused him to be awake for three days straight. He ended up in a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder, also known as manic depression.

“I spent the next nine years learning that my alternative brain chemistry is not a disorder and it is not an illness; it is a unique part of me that gives me strength and individuality in so many ways.”

Endurance sports helped him gain this knowledge, he continued. He graduated with a degree in industrial engineering in 2009 at Michigan. His father told the Tribune that he was on a championship ski team there. He then began competing in ironman triathlons before moving to Steamboat Springs.

Steamboat Today reported Hohs has been training with Heather Gollnick’s IronEdge triathlon team. “Dan was so vibrant,” she said. “He had this huge smile and this energy that just made you happy. It was contagious to everyone.” She called him “just one of those really decent human beings.”

Some 8,000 to 10,000 snakebites occur each year, of which about a third are venomous, according to a 2015 report by Linda Sanders, a physician at Temple University. Pit vipers, which include rattlesnakes, make up 75 to 80 percent of venomous bites, says the report, “Management of Venomous Snake Bites in North American,” which was published in emDocs.

The fatality rate for rattlesnake bites is somewhere around 15 percent for non-treated ones and roughly 2 percent or slightly less for treated ones.

Colorado has not had a snakebite death since at least before 1999, says Kirk Bohl, manager of registries & vital statistics for  the Colorado Department of Public Helath & Environment. Combing the database maintained by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he found that California and Georgia both had 13  deaths from bites by snakes or lizards from 1999 through 2015, followed by 11 in Texas. During that same time period, the United States had 107 altogether.

What exactly caused Hohs to die when treatment was administered relatively quickly is unknown. An autopsy will take another month or so.

Colorado does not have precise mapping of where rattlesnakes are found, but they’re rare, if ever, found at higher, cooler elevations with abundant precipitation. There have been reports at Steamboat Springs, but not upstream of Glenwood Canyon, meaning Winter Park, Breckenridge, and Vail are safe. But Durango has rattlesnakes, with reports in the state database of sightings as far west as Hesperus, site of a small ski area.

Will the warming climate change where rattlesnakes are found? Aspen and Vail, with elevations of 8,000, aren’t much higher than the site near Denver where the fatal bite occurred.

Tina Jackson, species conservation coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, says modeling suggests new territory in higher elevations for rattlesnakes as temperatures continue to warm. But whether precipitation changes also matters, and at this point, models remain unclear whether Colorado will get more precipitation—or less.

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