Aspen’s energy crisis: Money – and fossil fuels – to burn |

Aspen’s energy crisis: Money – and fossil fuels – to burn

Though the city of Aspen does enforce the energy-efficiency section of its building code, heating and cooling a large house requires a lot of energy, regardless of its efficiency. (Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly)

When a study of Aspen’s greenhouse gas emissions was released earlier this year, some skeptics could only shake their heads at claims the placid little town was spewing all sorts of harmful substances into the atmosphere.After all, Aspen doesn’t have factories with towering smoke stacks belching black plumes into the air. It doesn’t have vehicles snarled on five lanes of an interstate highway at all hours of the day.The snowcapped peaks surrounding town provide assurance of a clean, healthy environment. But Aspen has more large luxury homes per capita than just about anywhere on earth. And commuter traffic on Highway 82 and within the city limits can rival any small town in the United States.And that’s a big part of the town’s problem.Greenhouse gas emissions aren’t tied to black smoke pouring from factories. They come almost entirely from an invisible, odorless gas produced from the burning of fossil fuels. Those gases aren’t the kind that make it tougher to breathe. Instead, they rise into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.”Every gas pedal and light switch in town is at the root of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Rick Heede, who researched and wrote Aspen’s emissions report.

Like it or not, Aspen’s lifestyle feasts on fossil fuels more heavily than in many other parts of the country, the study concluded.An incredible percentage of tourists flock here via private jets and commercial airlines. They stay in hotels and lodges with outdoor pools and spas heated to combat the winter chill. McMansions that might be occupied only a fraction of the year stay heated and cooled year-round; some even have systems that melt snow off driveways. And thousands of workers who live elsewhere in the valley, or beyond, commute in and out of town because of the lure of high-paying jobs.”Air travel alone comprises 41 percent of Aspen’s emissions – a percentage comparable to industrial emissions in other heavily industrialized cities. Nationwide, air travel is a mere 2.1 percent of total emissions,” said the report.Throw air travel out of the mix and Aspen still produces copious amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, the report showed. Total emissions would still be about 43.4 tons per year for each of the town’s 8,200 residents. By comparison, Boulder calculated it emissions at 19 tons per capita annually.So who – or what – is the culprit? Monster homes are always easy targets for criticism. Pitkin County justified limiting house sizes on grounds that large, second homes generate growth because they require legions of service workers.From an energy-consumption perspective, some criticism is warranted. Though the city of Aspen diligently enforces the energy-efficiency section of its building code, heating and cooling a 10,000-square-foot house saps a lot of energy, regardless of its efficiency.The extravagant lifestyle pursued by many McMansion owners sends energy consumption soaring.

Dan Richardson, the city’s global warming project manager, estimated 75 percent of Aspen homes come complete with a hot tub, sometimes two. Several houses have snowmelt systems to keep driveways and sidewalks ice-free.”Some snowmelt systems can use as much energy, if not more, to heat the driveway as to heat the house,” Richardson said.Then there are the habits of some people with money to burn. Many Red Mountain mansions stay lit up at night even though no one has stayed in them for weeks. Thermostats keep the empty edifices at a cozy 72.”I don’t think there’s a code in the country that regulates how much energy a house can use,” said Richardson.As a result, the electricity, natural gas and propane used by Aspen’s buildings – everything from hotels and hospitals to mansions and employee housing units – accounts for 33 percent of local emissions, according to Heede’s report. It is estimated to be an even split between residential and commercial properties.As a comparison, private jets accounted for 19 percent of Aspen’s emissions and commercial airlines were responsible for 22 percent. A category called “road travel” – everything from tourists driving into town to commuters stacking up on Highway 82 to in-town trips – added up to 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.

In an interview, Heede made a “very rough estimate” that Aspen’s annual household greenhouse gas emission just from heating and electricity is slightly more than 39,000 pounds. The national average is 26,000 pounds. However, he said it’s not as simple as comparing averages. Nor is it fair.Aspen has greater energy consumption in part because the elevation is higher and the climate is colder than in many parts of the country, Heede said.Nevertheless, he conceded house size and amenities often play a part in the consumption, as the study demonstrates.The owners or property managers of 11 Aspen homes voluntarily supplied data on electricity and gas use for the study. A relatively new 7,931-square-foot house built in the Five Trees neighborhood produced an astounding 171.6 tons of emissions, far exceeding Aspen’s estimated average of 19.5 tons. The study didn’t include audits of individual homes to see what’s sucking down the energy.The largest house in the survey wasn’t the biggest energy pig, however. A 10,700-square-foot house near the Maroon Creek Club was responsible for burning enough fossil fuels to generate 81.7 tons of emissions, about the same as a house half that size in Mountain Valley.And it’s not just second homes that are big energy consumers. A 3,500-square-foot house in the affordable housing neighborhood of North 40 produced 21.3 tons of emissions, slightly more than Aspen’s estimated average.Heede’s own house was thrown into the survey for comparison, even though he lives outside of town. His super-efficient, 4,000-square-foot home produces 9.4 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.Heede said virtually every house, large or small, can easily “lop off” several tons of greenhouse gas emissions by implementing free or low-cost measures. He said up to 57 percent of emissions can be reduced with a cost-effective strategy.

Monster homes are already offsetting some of their consumption. Since 2000, Aspen and Pitkin County have applied a Renewable Energy Mitigation Program. In a nutshell, it forces residential builders to find a way to offset energy consumption from snowmelt systems, outdoor pools and large spas, or pay a fee.The fee is stiff. It’s equal to 20 years of energy consumption by the snowmelt system, the pool or the spa. The revenues go to the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, which plows them back into a variety of alternative energy or efficiency programs. CORE, for example, offers rebates when homeowners buy energy-efficient appliances, and it provides incentives for homeowners to invest in solar panels.Since the program was started, it’s collected $5.3 million, according to CORE’s Gary Goodson. Hotels and lodges are exempt from offsetting energy consumption for their outdoor amenities, like pools.Stephen Kanipe, chief building official for the city and county, said the program generated about three times more income than anticipated in its first year. The annual revenues have decreased each year since, in part because home builders took extra efficiency steps to offset the energy consumption of their outdoor pools and snowmelt systems.”If the program worked perfectly, we wouldn’t have any revenue at all,” Kanipe said.While large homes have offset their outdoor energy-consumption amenities, it’s unknown if incredibly wealthy homeowners care enough to take steps to reduce their energy consumption within the house and, therefore, reduce Aspen’s greenhouse gas emissions.”We can have the most efficient commercial and residential buildings … but we can’t regulate awareness” or willingness to participate, Kanipe said.And if Aspen’s largest homes won’t trying to reduce their contribution to global warming, will local residents of more humble means feel anything they do is useless?

“That’s still the gorilla on our back,” acknowledged Richardson.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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