A tale of two Aspens
December 31, 2007
ASPEN ” Weeks like this challenge the notion in the eyes of some observers that Aspen can ever truly be an environmental leader.
Aspen is the kingdom of conspicuous consumption during the holidays. The ultra-wealthy leave their troubles behind and whisk into town for an orgy of partying, shopping and even some skiing. Scores of private jets line the tarmac of the Pitkin County Airport and mansions that sit vacant for most of the year suddenly host more activity than a medieval castle.
A study commissioned this fall by the Aspen-based Sopris Foundation determined that the average vacation home emits 12 percent more carbon dioxide than resident-occupied homes.
Single-family residences that are second homes produce 35 percent more carbon dioxide than full-time, single-family residences.
Vacation homes account for 58 percent of the 5,858 residences in Aspen and surrounding neighborhoods in Pitkin County. They account for 61 percent of Aspen’s carbon emissions, concluded the study by Rick Heede of Climate Mitigation Services.
The frustrating paradox of the situation is that the homes that emit the most gases that contribute to global warming are those sitting vacant for most of the year. The average vacation home is used 88 days per year and sits vacant for 277 days, the study said.
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“Many energy demands are unnecessary and egregious: driveway heating, roof melt systems, hot tubs, towel bar heaters, 24/7 exterior lighting. … Excessive energy consumption, often with no comfort or security benefits, represents a problem for a community that aims to reduce community energy intensity and emissions of greenhouse gases,” Heede wrote.
While the findings of the study might not be well known, it’s no secret that Aspen is a capital of consumption and, thus, an easy target for critics. A lobbyist for the oil and gas industry angrily labeled the town hypocritical earlier this month when Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland joined forces with other mayors in the region to protest natural gas drilling on public lands in western Colorado known as the Roan Plateau.
“Billionaires in Aspen, Colorado, and liberal politicians like Aspen’s Mayor Mick Ireland are attacking natural gas development while that community’s growing number of mountain-top mansions burn more natural gas in a day than most Coloradoans use in a week,” said a statement from Americans for American Energy.
The Sopris Foundation’s study makes it hard to dispute Schnacke’s point. It found that there are 55 homes in the Aspen metro area that are larger than 10,000 square feet and another 74 between 8,000 and 10,000 square feet. And it’s not just the old McMansions that are culprits when it comes to energy consumption.
“Local energy building codes have moderated the energy-intensity of new or re-built homes, and transferable development rights (TDRs) have focused development out of the backcountry into and near the city, with the unintended consequence of allowing larger and more consumptive homes,” the study said. “As a consequence, some new homes use as much electricity as whole blocks of average American homes built elsewhere.”
Officials at the Sopris Foundation and other environmentalists aren’t writing Aspen off just yet.
The foundation’s study includes an extensive list of actions that second homeowners can undertake to reduce their energy consumption. The study can be found at http://www.soprisfoundation.org.
Sopris Foundation Director Piper Foster said she is optimistic there is a “sea change” nearing in the attitudes toward consumption. “The evolution of public thought is changing about how we see the aesthetics of huge and consumptive houses,” she said.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal foresaw that the ultra-wealthy will immerse themselves in the green movement in 2008. They will shop for more fuel efficient jets, for example. But the article cast doubts on the concept of “eco-mansions.”
Foster said there is dissent among the conservation community on how environmentally friendly a large home can be. “Just because you’re greening your 10,000-square-foot house, how green is it?” she asked.
In some respects, Aspen is light years ahead of other communities in offsetting the sins of its mansions. The city and county, through the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, established a groundbreaking program in 2000 that essentially taxes the wealthy for the luxury of energy consumption. It’s been called the world’s strictest carbon dioxide tax.
Home builders pay a fee for homes larger than 5,000 and homes larger than 10,000 square feet. There is a second fee if they exceed an energy budget that is written into local building codes. So, a snowmelt system in a driveway or an outdoor pool will require the homeowner to pay into the fund.
The program raised $1.5 million this year and has raised just shy of $8 million since its inception, said CORE Director Gary Goodson. The program has garnered national attention and widespread praise.
The revenues are plowed back into projects promoting energy efficiency or renewable energy sources. For example, $250,000 was spent on efficiency upgrades at the Aspen Middle School that will prevent emissions of 1 million pounds of carbon dioxide per year over the life of the building, Goodson said. Another example of projects made possible by the consumption tax was solar hot water systems at affordable housing projects.
The energy consumption of mansions built since the inception of the program has been more than offset. The program aims to remove three tons of carbon emissions for each ton of new emissions, Goodson said.
Aspen Mayor Ireland said the town has nothing to be ashamed of on the environmental front. Aspen is hardly alone in being an energy consumptive area, he said, but at least it has a plan to reduce its carbon emissions.
Through a program called the Canary Initiative, the city has assessed its community carbon footprint. Now it is implementing steps to lighten its load through its Canary Action Plan. The goal is to reduce the community’s carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. More information on the city’s program can be found at http://www.aspenglobalwarming.com.
Ireland said he believes Aspen’s wealthy second-home owners are as committed to those goals as anyone. He isn’t blaming their lifestyles for skewing Aspen’s carbon emissions.
“I think a lot of people sincerely want to be part of the solution,” Ireland said. “Ultimately, I think we can be a zero carbon footprint town. It’s a big goal, but I think we can get there.”