Eagle County’s annual energy inventory report shows mixed progress
County celebrates big strides in renewable energy, while increasing emissions from transportation and waste call for action
Eagle County released its annual energy inventory report earlier this month, which details the greenhouse gas emissions generated by energy consumption, transportation and waste in 2019 and 2020.
The report was presented at the quarterly meeting of the Climate Action Collaborative, a group of community leaders and stakeholders who are leading the charge to achieve the county’s recently updated climate action plan, which calls for a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2014 levels by 2030.
The latest data shows that compared with 2014 levels, total greenhouse gas emissions increased by 7.6% in 2019, though this spike is largely attributed to a new calculation system for transportation emissions and does not accurately reflect a change in the amount of emissions produced. The following year, the effects of the pandemic and lockdowns in 2020 caused a 12.9% decrease in emissions from 2014 levels.
The report identifies areas of success and areas that need greater attention in order to achieve the county’s climate action goal.
Ground transportation is the leading source of emissions
Ground transportation continues to be the single largest contributor to emissions in the county, making up 41% of total emissions in 2019 and 37% in 2020.
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The 2019 data shows that the 7.6% increase in total emissions was primarily driven by a 58.3% spike in ground transportation emissions.
If that number gets your heart rate up, don’t panic — this spike is not as it appears. Starting in 2018, Eagle County switched from using ground transportation statistics provided by the Colorado Department of Transportation to statistics provided by Google analytics. While the former only tracked the vehicles on Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 6 that entered the Eagle County borders, the latter calculates all of the emissions produced during inbound and outbound trips to the county, as well as trips within the county’s borders.
For example, let’s take a weekend warrior who drives from Denver to Vail and then back to the city. The old system would only count the car’s emissions that occurred within Eagle County, a small percentage of the full trip. Now, using location tracking on Google Maps and similarly powered navigation apps, the data includes the total emissions released during a round-trip drive to the county.
Erica Sparhock is the deputy director of Clean Energy Economy for the Region, a consulting team that sources the new transportation data. She said that while the data is no longer comparable with that from previous years, moving forward it will provide the information necessary to be effective in addressing the full scope of transportation emissions.
“It’s easier data for folks to take action on,” Sparhock said. “I got really excited about the idea that we could look at these inbound and outbound trips, and use that kind of information for a lot of our counties to help advocate for more regional transportation. And then that inbound number is something that Eagle County can look at for their own expansion of transit within the county lines.”
In 2020, inbound and outbound trips accounted for 74% of vehicle emissions, while in-boundary trips accounted for 26%, a proportion that is similar to 2019. These statistics highlight the fact that reduction efforts need to include support for regional and state public transit systems, along with increasing the adoption of electric vehicles.
It is important to note that the two prior energy inventory reports showed a significant increase in ground transportation emissions between 2014 and 2017, and though the 2019 data is not comparable, it is very possible that this trend has continued.
Long commutes are part of the problem, as the average commute distance in Eagle County is double the national average. By 2030, the collaborative aims to have at least 50% of the workforce live within 5 miles of an employment center, and is encouraging commuters to ditch their cars for public transportation or other methods at least twice a week. As of now, around 20.5% of people in Eagle County commute sustainably.
County commissioner Matt Scherr said that transportation is an area where big changes need to take place to make sustainable commuting a viable option for more people. For example, the creation of a regional transportation authority could create a public transit system that better accommodates the needs of workers.
“If you’ve got hurdles to what you’re asking people to do, it’s not going to be successful,” Scherr said. “We have to do robust transit. Then we wouldn’t have to drive our cars so much, we wouldn’t have to be building parking, we wouldn’t have to be doing all sorts of things that contribute to greenhouse gases and a less well-functioning economy.”
The collaborative is also aiming for a 2% increase each year of electric vehicles registered in Eagle County. In 2021, the county added five new electrical vehicle charging stations, four new electric vehicle buses, and Holy Cross Energy rebated 240 e-bikes.
Aviation, which makes up about 10% of all transportation emissions in Eagle County, has also seen a small but steady increase in emissions since 2014.
Renewable energy is having a significant impact
Reduction in electrical emissions shines as the leading source of progress toward Eagle County’s sustainability goals.
While electrical consumption has remained essentially unchanged between 2014 and 2020, emissions attributable to electrical use have decreased by 45% over the same period, thanks to Holy Cross Energy’s commitment to growing renewable energy sources each year.
Holy Cross Energy has increased its share of renewables from 20% in 2014 to 46% in 2020, and is working toward its own internal sustainability goals to supply 100% renewable energy by 2030.
Across the valley, the vast majority of residential and commercial emissions are produced by unincorporated properties — which include all of Beaver Creek and Bachelor Gulch, EagleVail, and the mountains, among others — and the town of Vail. Together, these areas accounted for 487,079 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2019, while all other municipalities combined account for 243,469 metric tons.
Despite an impressive overall reduction in electric emissions over the past six years, all communities except Edwards, Avon and Red Cliff showed an increase in electrical emissions from 2017 to 2019, with unincorporated properties showing the greatest spike. Sparhock said that snowmakers are particularly high energy consumers, and an increase in their use on the mountains is likely contributing to the spike.
Since the 2020 drop in electrical consumption during COVID-19 is an outlier, it will be critical to see the numbers in 2021 to determine whether the years-long trend toward lower electrical emissions has continued.
To help support the positive developments, the collaborative has set a goal of installing beneficial electrification for 5% of existing buildings each year, and adopting net zero construction codes for new buildings. From 2020 to 2021, the total number of all-electric homes increased by 1,641, which falls slightly short of the 5% annual goal but still demonstrates steady progress.
Unlike electricity, emissions from natural gas have been moving in the opposite direction, with a 16.1% increase in 2019 and a 4% increase in 2020. As of 2020, natural gas has now outpaced electrical, contributing 26% of emissions as compared with electrical’s 25%.
“This continued upward trend is in sharp contrast with the decrease in emissions from electricity, and should add greater urgency to efforts to reduce natural gas usage in homes, businesses and institutional buildings and facilities,” the report states.
Solid waste emissions rise despite improved diversion rates
The final source of emissions in Eagle County is the solid waste in our landfill, where emissions have risen significantly since 2014 levels. The county’s landfill has gone from emitting around 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2014 to over 150,000 in 2020, which correlates to a growing tonnage of annual solid waste.
A decade ago, in 2010, Eagle County generated 97,972 tons of solid waste in a year. In 2020, that number was 155,887 tons. The solid waste data for 2021 is already in and shows that this trend is continuing, with 162,548 tons of waste generated last year.
An upside to the data is that Eagle County is diverting its highest percentage so far of this waste away from landfills, where it can be recycled, composted or treated. Last year, 29% of all solid waste generated was diverted from the landfill, and 33% of municipal solid waste — higher than the national average — was recycled.
“While the amount of waste diverted from the Eagle County landfill has increased steadily since 2012, so has the amount of waste delivered to it,” the report reads. “In 2020, the landfill received 109,319 tons of waste, while 46,589 tons were diverted – both figures setting all-time records.”
One of the most effective initiatives in reducing waste emissions is composting. Organic material left to decompose in the landfill is the primary source of solid waste emissions, and getting residential, commercial and industrial actors to bring organic waste to the Vail Honeywagon compost center or other compost sites will greatly reduce the emissions from solid waste.
The collaborative’s goal is to divert 80% of all organic waste and 100% of all recoverable construction and demolition waste by 2030. There has been success on the organic diversion, with an 11% increase in diversion last year, but an 8% decrease in construction and demolition diversion during the same time.
For more information about waste diversion opportunities, visit the waste diversion page at WalkingMountains.org.
Keep moving forward
The Climate Action Collaborative is made up of many departments and organizations, each pushing for progress in different areas that together will enable the county to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade.
The 2030 goal is ambitious, but commissioner Scherr said that it is possible if the county, the community and local organizations take bold action that generates sweeping changes.
“I think we can,” Scherr said. “I think what this report shows, and I think all these reports have always shown, is that we have to do this through broad policies and programs. It’s really going to be those big changes that we have to do. Behavior change alone is not going to get us there.”