Ahead of Energy Tax Vote, Officials Say Denver's Slow in Meeting Climate Goals

Ahead of Energy Tax Vote, Officials Say Denver's Slow in Meeting Climate Goals
How much progress is Denver making on its climate goals? Denver City Council has spent two extra-long committee meetings this month finding out how hard it is to answer that question succinctly.

As councilmembers prepare to vote on whether to refer an energy tax measure to Denver voters this fall, representatives from five city departments have briefed the Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee on the city’s climate efforts over the past two weeks. The tax measure, introduced by council president Jolon Clark, would ask voters to approve an excise tax on electricity and natural gas consumption to fund a new city office dedicated to climate change.

The measure has drawn opposition from Mayor Michael Hancock and a wide range of business groups, but has advanced thanks to the support of several newly elected councilmembers and a grassroots push from climate activists. Clark's bill narrowly passed a preliminary vote at city council on August 19.

“This is not something that is happening down the road, this is something that’s happening today,” Clark said prior to the vote. “It is something where we have to take action today.”

In presentations to the Safety Committee following the introduction of Clark's bill, city staff have highlighted the progress Denver has made in certain sectors and programs, but made clear there's still a lot more to do.

“Our greenhouse gas emissions in Denver have been trending downward, but not on the glide path that is necessary to achieve the scientifically stated goals,” Liz Babcock, manager of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air, Water and Climate Section, told councilmembers last week.

In a Climate Action Plan released last year, Hancock’s administration committed to achieving a 45 percent cut in citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. That’s in line with what the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended in a major report last year, though many scientists have argued that in order to achieve a global carbon emissions reduction of 45 percent, rich, industrialized countries like the U.S. must shoulder more of the burden and decarbonize faster.

The vast majority of Denver’s emissions come from three sectors: electricity generation, transportation and natural gas use in buildings.

Electricity is the sector over which city government has the least control. Electric utilities are regulated at the state level, where policymakers have spent years encouraging the use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and Denver's sole electric provider, Xcel Energy, has committed to an 80 percent reduction in emissions from electricity generation by 2030.

As a result, Denver's electricity emissions are on the decline and are projected to drop off considerably in the coming years as wind and solar continue to grow as a percentage of Xcel's energy portfolio. But as far as sector-wide emissions go, that's one of the only bright spots in the data presented to city council this month.

“We’re seeing a lot of benefit from that policy, in terms of driving down emissions from the electricity sector,” said Babcock. “Transportation and natural gas are a lot more difficult. We are not seeing the gains in those spaces.”

Building energy use — that is, the burning of natural gas for heating and cooking, along with industrial uses — declined by less than two-tenths of 1 percent from 2016 to 2017, city staff said last week. That's far off track from the Climate Action Plan's goal of a 10 percent reduction in building energy use by 2020, but officials said that measures like Energize Denver, which imposed benchmarking requirements on large buildings, and the newly implemented Green Buildings Ordinance could help close that gap in the near future.

The transportation sector, Denver's second-largest emissions source, may present even more of a challenge, officials from DDPHE and the Department of Public Works told councilmembers. Cars and light trucks, including SUVs, make up nearly 80 percent of the city's transportation emissions, but little progress has been made in recent years in encouraging Denverites to use alternate modes of transportation. The most recent available data shows that nearly 70 percent of Denver commutes are made in a single-occupancy vehicle, well above the 50 percent that the city has targeted by 2030.

Accelerating the transition to zero-emission electric vehicles will be critical for Denver to meet its climate goals, but less than 1,000 EVs were sold in Denver in 2018, according to city estimates. Officials have set a target of 15 percent of all Denver vehicle registrations being electric by 2025, which would require putting 100,000 EVs on roads over the next six years.

“There’s a lot more for us to do in those sectors, and they’re also slow to change,” Babcock told councilmembers. “Personal vehicles might change over only [every] ten to fifteen years. Buildings, likewise, you’re only going to replace equipment when it’s potentially at end of life; they’re not sold all that frequently, and of course buildings have a very long lifetime once they’re built.”

One thing that was made particularly clear in staff presentations to the Safety Committee over the last two weeks: Many strategies for reducing emissions in the transportation and buildings sectors come with a high price tag. Replacing natural gas heating systems with electric versions in tens of thousands of buildings, which will almost certainly be necessary to achieve long-term goals for carbon neutrality, will be enormously expensive. EV charging stations — thousands of which will need to be built to support an electrified vehicle fleet — will run you $15,000 for a basic model and up to $100,000 for a new DC fast-charging station.

The climate-tax proposal will have another hearing, including a public comment period, at city council on August 26. While the bill has seven co-sponsors, giving it enough votes to pass, Hancock could potentially issue a veto and prevent it from going to voters this November.

“There’s a lot of discussion in the press now, among this council, among the administration, on how we move forward with addressing climate change,” Councilman Paul Kashmann, chair of the Safety Committee and a supporter of Clark's bill, said Wednesday. “There is nobody at this table or in the staff I’ve talked to, or on the mayor’s team, that doesn’t agree we need to do more. We’re wrestling with how to get that done.”
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff