Boulder Evaluates Climate Plan

"CityGetting people to agree and sign on to climate goals might be the easy part of creating a climate action program. The real challenge comes when a city tackles ambitious goals—and evaluates the effectiveness of the programs it has developed.

In 2002, the City of Boulder passed a resolution to lower greenhouse gas emissions and meet Kyoto Protocol goals by 2012. Four years later, the city council adopted a Climate Action Plan (CAP) and Boulder voters passed the CAP tax, the nation’s first tax exclusively designed for climate change mitigation. The program generates about $1.8 million a year for energy-efficiency and renewable energy programs.  

To date, Boulder has achieved 43 percent of the total reductions the city targeted for 2011-2012. With the program up for renewal and slated for a vote in November, city staffers asked Rocky Mountain Institute to help analyze the cost-effectiveness of the 19 residential, commercial, and renewable energy programs nested under the plan.

Presented this week at the city’s Energy and Climate Study session, the RMI review compared Boulder programs to selected municipal and utility programs across the country and assessed the cost effectiveness of CAP-funded programs.

“From our perspective, the reductions are very significant and valuable, and we certainly commend the city for the efforts put into the programs so far,” said Robert Hutchinson, RMI’s managing director. “But they are not enough to reach the 2012 goals.”

RMI found that the most cost-effective emissions reductions came from residential lighting programs, commercial lighting programs and audits, and solar rebates and grants, and that the city’s EnergySmart and SmartRegs programs provide among the best bang for the taxpayer’s buck. Yet even with the full, cumulative 25 years of savings from all examined demand reduction programs performed since 2007, Boulder will not reach the 2012 Kyoto-based emissions reduction target—which was a very aggressive goal.

However, RMI’s analysis shows that if the City of Boulder decides to extend the CAP tax, the major future programs (Commercial and Residential EnergySmart and SmartRegs) will mature and reap larger savings at better cost-effectiveness.

“Boulder’s CAP-funded emissions reductions so far, though significant and cost-effective, will not reach Kyoto 2012 goals,” said RMI buildings Analyst Roy Torbert. “However, comprehensive and adaptable energy efficiency programs (such as Boulder’s), when funded for longer periods of time, create compounding energy reductions. RMI’s sensitivity analysis shows that Boulder can reach Kyoto 2012 reduction targets by 2020 with just the demand reduction impacts of funding three core programs. And these public investments have a rate of return greater than 20 percent in lower utility bills for residents and businesses—a number likely to increase as programs mature.”


* Forecasts based on CAP extension for 15 years, with program maturation after six years
** No underlying emissions growth (from population growth, economic growth, or supply mix) modeled Boulder’s comprehensive recent programs (primarily EnergySmart) excel at collecting data, and provide city staff considerable opportunity for program learning, strategic thinking, and optimizing the effectiveness of CAP funding.

The future of Boulder’s climate plans is intertwined with voters’ decision last year to consider having the city take over the local utility, currently managed by Xcel Energy. When evaluating Boulder’s energy future, aggressive demand side reductions will make municipalization or any other major supply-side changes easier and cheaper, while affording programmatic flexibility. Residents would have an unprecedented stake in efficiency projects, while distributed renewable energy generation and storage would become a shared priority.

RMI has recommended that the city both continue its programs—and explore ways to achieve deeper savings.

“Although we found the programs supported by the tax are cost-effective and will perform even better over time,” said Torbert, “we are encouraging city staffers to develop programs that explore deeper savings for residences and businesses, and aimed at the somewhat-overlooked industrial stock where there is even more untapped energy efficiency.”

In addition, a municipal utility would make a net-zero or off-grid home program far more valuable, while efficiency projects, particularly more aggressive projects that include controls, peak load management, and thermal storage, can proactively reduce some of the municipalization costs.

“Effective efficiency programs continue to create more ideas—and bigger bundles of ideas—that drive a bigger climate impact and deliver better economics,” Hutchinson said. “We strongly encourage long-term energy thinking about the comfort and the performance of structural assets.”

Torbert agreed. “Over a lifetime of 30 years, these programs are hugely beneficial for residents and business owners because of decreased energy costs,” he said. “Boulder must push beyond the simple and easy programs and begin encouraging residents and businesses to think longer term about their buildings, investment choices, and energy use.”