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  • Dylan Anderson

Steamboat Council moves to ban fossil-fuel-powered snowmelt systems, reversing previous decision

The previous council opted to place few restrictions on snowmelt, but the newly elected council unanimously voted to require systems be powered by renewable sources.

Steamboat Springs City Council is reversing an earlier decision made by the previous council, now placing a ban on fossil-fuel-powered snowmelt systems in the city and aligning updated building codes with what Routt County, Oak Creek, Yampa and Hayden are already adopting.

The change also aligns with the city’s adopted climate action plan, which calls for reducing the use of greenhouse gases outside of the home.

Under the ordinance passed on first reading Tuesday, the updated codes would require any new snowmelt system be powered by renewable energy. The limits don’t have carveouts for various parts of the city like the last ordinance did, and the restrictions apply to both new residential and commercial construction.

“I want to be really clear, we’re not saying no snowmelt. We have other options besides fossil fuels,” said Council member Amy Dickson. “I have heard from people who support the climate action plan and want changes from us on City Council to move this forward.”

The updated codes have language allowing gas-powered snowmelt in some cases, like for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Existing systems are also grandfathered into the codes, so the change does not impact the use of any existing systems.

The previous City Council had approved updated codes that placed few restrictions on snowmelt — a square footage limit for residential properties, but nothing for commercial properties in zones near the base of Steamboat Resort and Downtown Steamboat. That decision flouted goals in the Routt County Climate Action Plan, which the city helped fund and has adopted.

“How do we answer to our climate action commitment if we don’t do something about this?” McGinlay said. “Do we plan to wait for a perfect solution to come along, because we may not have long enough? Research shows we have 30 years to make significant changes to our policy to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

But with each council candidate who was elected earlier this month saying sustainability was a focus for them, council overturned the previous decision in a unanimous vote.

“I listen to my constituents and I got to tell you, I have not heard from anybody who opposes this,” said Council member Michael Buccino. “Even though my personal beliefs I think I want to ease into this a little bit more, you’re going to get my support because of the constituents who elected me.”

The conversation around snowmelt has evolved through the year, as various municipalities have been reviewing the building codes. When first discussed, requiring renewable energy for snowmelt was talked about as an effective ban, as there didn’t appear to be many options to do a fully renewable system.

But since, Yampa Valley Electric Association’s Green Choice program has become a facet of the discussion. Based on what YVEA has said, someone could install an electric-powered system and offset the part of YVEA’s energy mix that comes from fossil fuels to meet the updated codes.

Megan Moore-Kemp, member relations manager at YVEA, gave an example of the cost difference for energy. Assuming a 30-day month where snow falls for six hours every day, a homeowner with a 1,750 square-foot system would pay an extra $78 a month on their electric bill to utilize the Green Choice program for snowmelt, Moore-Kemp calculated.

“We created this program to be affordable and attainable for our membership who want to offset the proportionate share of our power mix with renewable energy,” Moore-Kemp said.

Moore Kemp noted that there are other versions of Green Choice offered by other entities, so the Green Choice program is not the only way to offset energy usage.

Paul Bony, the energy and transportation director with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, said during public comment that the reason it appears there are not many alternatives to natural gas snowmelt is because it is the easiest way to install snowmelt. In areas where gas isn’t allowed or feasible, Bony said builders are often able to come up with solutions that don’t emit greenhouse gasses.

“Setting requirements for non-carbon snowmelt will unleash the creative energy of the design and engineering community,” Bony said.

Safety is a common reason to allow snowmelt without restrictions, but Bony argued that shouldn’t be a concern because the city already has snow removal ordinances in place. “Arguments about safety are really arguments about not enforcing existing ordinances,” he said.

Another concern on council, particularly Council Member Joella West, was how the updated restrictions could impact an overhaul of Gondola Transit Center, a project that is currently planned to have a lot of snowmelt. Renewable options like geothermal are being explored for GTC, but it is too early to know if that will be a viable solution.

West said she was only considering the GTC project when making her decision on the city-wide building code. City Public Works Director Jon Snyder estimated a change in building codes could lead to additional design costs up to $100,000 for the project, which is expected to cost more than $50 million when complete.

“The only thing that I’m focused on tonight and considering this language is GTC,” West said. “There is no way to take a shovel to (an updated GTC) so it would be back to the drawing board, and the result of that would not be the ideal transportation center they’ve planned.”

(GTC is being designed to maximize space, which leaves limited room for snow storage. Snyder said it would be possible to put in an electric snowmelt system, though that will come with higher costs.)

McGinlay countered that if the new GTC results in burning fossil fuels, it wouldn’t be the ideal transit center for a community that has expressed its desire to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Sarah Jones, director of social responsibility for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., said the resort agrees fossil fuel-powered snowmelt should be banned, but that the city should also have a variance process that could be used for cases like GTC. If there are no feasible alternatives, then a variance could be appropriate.

“We too have committed to climate action — Steamboat Resort as part of Alterra Mountain Company — has committed to ambitious goals for CO2 reductions by 2030,” Jones said. “For example, (a variance) could be a plan to transition to electric when we’re able to ensure dependable technology and 100% renewable energy.”

Council passed the ordinance unanimously. They will need to approve it again for it to take effect. New building codes go into place on Jan. 1.

Top Photo Caption: Snowmelt is expected to be an important and extensive feature of an overhauled Gondola Transit Center. (Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp./Courtesy)


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