How Green Is Colorado Springs?

Exploring sustainability in our city, where there are positives to celebrate and plenty of areas for improvement.

Grazing Yack Solar Project
Grazing Yak Solar Project was brought online by Springs Utilities in November 2019. It consists of 119,000 panels and generates 35 megawatts of electricity to power 13,000 homes. Palmer Solar Project came online April 2020. Photo courtesy of Colorado Springs Utilities.

Ask a range of residents, from the average citizen to the involved professional, “How green is Colorado Springs?” and the most common first response is, “Wow, that’s such a broad question.”

It is a broad topic—and it can be a contentious one. From issues of natural gas and coal to water, air quality and open space, everyone has an opinion. But it seems the best answer that many get behind comes from Ian Johnson, director of sustainability at Colorado College: “It’s greenish, and getting greener.”

Colorado Springs, he says, “has had a certain [environmentally unfriendly] image over the years—some of which is deserved. But I think that image, it’s no longer deserved, and I think things are rapidly changing.”

Johnson has a pretty good finger on the pulse of sustainability. He has been heavily involved in CC’s decade-long work to reach carbon neutrality. The school announced achievement of that goal in January, making it just the eighth carbon neutral institution of higher education in the country and the only one in the Rocky Mountain West.

Colorado College's Honnen Garden.
Colorado College’s Honnen Garden. Photo courtesy of Colorado College.

It’s a high point in local sustainability efforts. Since 2008, CC reduced on-campus emissions by 75% through a variety of initiatives: building renovations, efficiency upgrades, campus engagement, and on-site and local renewable energy purchases. (The college owns about one megawatt total between solar arrays on and off campus.) Community partnerships were also key to their success—and one of those partnerships was with another major local player, Colorado Springs Utilities.

After years of being at the table with Springs Utilities, Johnson says CC now buys 100% of its energy from solar arrays in and around Colorado Springs on the Utilities grid. That includes the new Grazing Yak solar project that Springs Utilities connected in November near Calhan.

“AS A MUNICIPAL UTILITY, we want to add value to our customers’ lives by helping them fulfill their goals,” says Utilities spokesperson Amy Trinidad.

That’s the aim for large institutions and individuals, both important sectors in collective energy usage. For instance, Utilities’ newest program, Green Power, allows customers to power their homes and businesses with energy from its solar projects for a little higher rate. “Customers can elect renewable energy at various increments of their choice, up to 100%,” Trinidad says. A typical residential customer, choosing 100% Green Power, will see an increase in their electric bill of about $8 a month.

Trinidad notes that Utilities’ focus is efficiency programs as well as renewables: “We recommend our customers first apply some simple, energy-saving measures before investing in a renewable energy system. By investing in energy efficiency up front, you lessen your energy demand, which will reduce the size of the investment needed for your renewable energy system.”

Utilities rebate programs have helped many customers, business and residential, be more efficient. In 2018, rebates on energy-efficient products from smart thermostats to showerheads saved 18.9 million gallons of water; 36,888 MCF (thousand cubic feet) of natural gas; 27,074 megawatt hours of electricity consumption; and 4.1 megawatts of electricity demand. For comparison sake, that’s about 475,000 bathtubs of water, natural gas for 601 homes for a year, an hour of electricity for 8,910 homes, and energy equivalent to 40 automobile engines.

Aram Benyamin, CEO Springs Utilities
Aram Benyamin, CEO Springs Utilities. Photo courtesy of Springs Utilities.

But energy production is a big piece of the sustainability picture as well. Trinidad says it’s not just efficiency that’s key for Springs Utilities. “No matter what we do, reliability is a priority,” she says.

Currently, reliability means a diverse energy portfolio, which includes natural gas, solar energy, a soon-to-be-brought-on solar battery, and local hydroelectric power. Hydro is Colorado Springs’ most widely used form of renewable energy and has been supporting the community’s power supply for more than 100 years.

“Our integrated resource plans [IRPs] will lay the ground work for new technologies, such as distributed generation, storage, renewable energy and electrification of our transportation infrastructure, to ensure our customers are getting the resiliency, reliability and economic benefits of our transforming industry,” says Aram Benyamin, Colorado Springs Utilities CEO. “Our total carbon footprint will be reduced as we add more renewables and replace the need to build more baseline fossil-fuel infrastructure.”

For now though, one other piece of Utilities’ energy portfolio is the coal-fired elephant along Monument Creek: Martin Drake Power Plant, which is set to be decommissioned no later than 2035. According to Springs Utilities, the smallest of Drake’s three generating units was decommissioned in 2016. For the two remaining, Trinidad says, “The plant remains a critical piece of our system to ensure reliable electric service for our community.”

However, she adds, “Springs Utilities is studying earlier decommissioning dates for Drake—from 2023 to 2030—in addition to the decommissioning of our other generating resources, in its electric and natural gas integrated resource plans.”

Drake—and its closure, more specifically—have been one of the key issues for local environmental activists. In September, 300 climate change protesters chanted for Drake’s closure when they gathered at City Hall as a part of an international Climate Strike movement before the meeting of the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York.

Martin Drake Power Plant
Martin Drake Power Plant. Photo by Theresa Shaw.

The local chapter of 350.org, 350 Colorado Springs, a global grassroots movement that works to solve the climate crisis, has been working in partnership with the Sierra Club, the Green Cities Coalition and others on a campaign pushing for the city to shut down Drake by 2023 and coal-fired Ray Nixon Power Plant by 2026, and to transition to 100% renewable energy. While on a quicker timeline, this is in line with the “Roadmap to 100% Renewable Energy By 2040 and Bold Climate Action” plan Governor Jared Polis released in May 2019.

Amy Gray, volunteer coordinator for 350 Colorado and co-chair of Colorado Springs’ Moving Beyond Coal Coalition, says the shutdown of Drake by 2023 is “very doable.”

At monthly meetings, 350 Colorado Springs encourages residents to voice their concerns by writing city councilors and giving public comments at the Utilities Policy Advisory Committee (UPAC) meetings. UPAC is the group charged with Springs Utilities’ planning, and is developing the community’s energy IRP.

Trinidad says the energy IRP will provide long-term broad direction to guide Utilities’ investments in areas including distributed generation, grid modernization, efficiency programs and emissions reductions. The latter will also need to take into consideration the new states goals in Polis’ Roadmap to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

“We are studying a variety of carbon reduction sensitivities in our integrated resource planning process,” Benyamin says. “Those range from 50% reduction in 2030 from 2005 levels to 100% reduction by 2050. This is in response to both customer input and state legislation that was passed in 2019.”

The energy IRP is set to be completed and approved by the Utilities Board this summer, but community members can still have a say in the process.

“A critical piece of the development of this plan is public input,” Trinidad says. “Because we are a community-owned utility, we value our customers’ input concerning the future composition of our generating resources, as well as their expectations for service reliability and energy costs.” (Information about the process, including meeting dates, times and ways to comment, is available at csu.org.)

SO HOW DOES COLORADO SPRINGS COMPARE with other cities in all their shades of green? According to the 2019 U.S. Cities Sustainable Development Report, which covers the 105 most populous cities in the U.S. and is meant to help cities “calibrate their progress” toward the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, Colorado Springs ranks 68th. The only other metro area in Colorado on the list is the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood area, which ranks 22nd. The Springs scored highest in indexes such as health and well-being, and responsible consumption and production; but climate action and affordable and clean energy were rated “poor.” (Denver also rated poor in the latter category.)

This report doesn’t rate recycling, but according to the 2019 State of Recycling in Colorado report by Eco-Cycle, Colorado Springs is the largest of Colorado’s largest cities (more than 10,000 residents) that does not provide curbside recycling to all residents. Though curbside recycling is available as an add-on service, extra fees keep many residents from using it. El Paso County earned a silver medal in the report for having a waste composition study conducted within the last five years, which provides a baseline report for improving recycling rates.

350 Colorado Springs Climate strike 2019 outside Colorado Springs City Hall.
350 Colorado Springs gathers for Climate Strike 2019 outside Colorado Springs City Hall. Photo courtesy 350 Colorado Springs.

Perhaps surprisingly, Colorado as a whole lags behind the national average in overall per capita recycling. But in light of national disruptions after China’s 2018 ban on imports of U.S. recycled paper and plastics, it’s worth noting that Colorado had no reports of recycled materials ending up in landfills. At one of the largest local, private waste collection and recycling companies GFL Environmental (formerly Bestway Disposal), George Engelhardt, recycling facility manager, says all of its recycling product stays domestic.

Gray points to shortcomings in local recycling, as well as composting, clean water, renewable agriculture and public transit, including its fossil fuel-burning fleet. “We could have an electric fleet that would save the city millions of dollars,” she says.

When asked “how green is Colorado Springs?” her answer is, “Not very.”

Where Colorado Springs Power Comes From

2018 Electric Generation by Fuel Type

48% natural gas

37% coal

9% hydro

5% mixed market purchases

1% solar

Utilities Renewables by 2024

20% or more of the mix will come from renewable sources

264 megawatts of solar power in generation portfolio

25-megawatt battery storage system, the largest energy storage system announced in Colorado to date, powering more than 30,000 homes

100,000+ homes powered annually by solar energy

Water Conservation Needed

5,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools: the amount of annual water savings over the next 50 years needed to meet the community’s long-term water resource goals, according to Springs Utilities.

ONE AREA OF SUSTAINABILITY that many locals praise widely is literally green, at least during parts of the year: open space. And while the U.S. Cities Report “Life on Land” category, which includes but isn’t limited to land conservation, rates Colorado Springs as “poor to moderate,” it’s hard to deny the growth that has happened here. Since voters passed the Trails, Open Space and Parks ordinance (TOPS) in 1997, the city has built nearly 50 miles of trails, completed 37 park projects and acquired more than 4,700 acres of open space.

“You know, it’s so easy to get down on ourselves,” says Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition (TOSC). “TOPS is something that we can all be very proud of. It’s something that we came together as a community to support. And as we look back at the list of accomplishments as a result of TOPS, it is something that the community can say, ‘We really made a difference in the look of our community, the feel of our community, the future of our community.’”

Of course, she also says there’s much more to be done even in this area, putting her in Johnson’s camp of Colorado Springs as a “greenish” community.

“We hear from people all the time how much they would love to just walk out their front door and take a trail to get to where they want to recreate,” she says. “They don’t want to get in their car and throw their bike on top or in the back. They would love the ability to safely bicycle to our open spaces and parks. And that’s one of the things we’re trying to accomplish.”

Davies also recognizes improvements to be made within her own organization. TOSC has been reviewing its annual fundraiser, the American Discovery Trail Races, the Labor Day half and full marathon in partnership with Pikes Peak Road Runners.

Details are still in the works, but options include water stations that don’t rely on plastic cups, locally-sourced gear, and carbon offsets for racers flying in from other states.

“We’re going to do as much as we can to make this an event we can all really look at and be proud of as an environmental organization,” she says. “We are going to attempt to have one of the greenest races in Colorado.”

It’s another step in a greener direction.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published February 2020 in the Winter print issue of Springs magazine. 


Are You Environmentally Smarter Than a Fourth Grader?

Jonathan Wuerth, administrator for School District 20’s School in the Woods, teaches fourth-grade students in the science-integrated, field-based program to be stewards of the environment and naturalists for life. His top tips for greener living are good for all ages:

1. Follow the R’s: You know the three R’s of sustainability—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. (Wuerth likes to show his students how they can dry their hands with one section of paper towel, instead of two or three.) But a student recently told Wuerth she’d heard of another: Refuse. For example, refuse plastic bags at grocery stores.

2. Compost: Some people add a fifth R to the list: Rot, better known as compost. It’s easy to do: Wuerth’s naturalists regularly compost fruit and vegetable scraps from lunches, plant materials and other appropriate items. Find out how to start composting from Soil Cycle. The local program has curbside compost pickups for downtown residents, drop-off stations for other parts of town, and workshops for those who want to learn more.

3. Grow Your Own Food: A big backyard garden is great, but starting small is good too. Students at School in the Woods grow microgreens during fall and winter. “Today we had three big trays of microgreens that the parents came and cut and served with the pizzas for lunch,” Wuerth says. And some students are growing their own at home. “It gets contagious, when people see these things in practice.” For info and help on gardening and growing, check out Pikes Peak Urban Gardens.

4. Get Involved: School in the Woods teachers spent 20 years teaching out of portable buildings in Black Forest. When D-20 voters approved the 2016 bond authorization, the school received funding to build a new environmentally-friendly and learning-conducive building with radiant floor heating, an additional 16 solar panels, large windows for passive solar and more. The building opened in April 2019, but the bond wouldn’t have passed without community involvement and support. “We had people walking door-to-door and making phone calls,” Wuerth says. “Community engagement makes everyone more invested.”


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