Carbon Neutral

Liberty Utilities’ solar facility in Luning, Nevada. Photo courtesy of Liberty Utilities.


Mountain towns feel the effect of climate change like no others. It only takes an increase of a few degrees for a snowstorm to dwindle into a saturating shower. It’s the snowfall, and resulting snowpack, that feeds countless communities their water supply throughout the dry summer months. The precious snow is also integral to a resort town’s tourist economy, as well as the lifestyle the locals thrive on.

Truckee, consistently named among the nation’s top ski towns—for recreation as well as quality of life—was one of the most recent towns to make a commitment to clean, renewable energy. The commitment was made in response to the Sierra Club’s call for cities to transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” says Erin de Lafontaine of the 100% Renewable Truckee Committee. “I think the recent events (fires) have been a big wake up call to a lot of people. We’re on the frontline of climate change.”

Downtown Truckee
Downtown Truckee, California. Photo by Paul Hamill.

In 2015, the Town of Truckee began incorporating climate policies into its general plan, a long-term blueprint for the town’s future. In 2017, it passed a resolution committing to 100 percent renewable electricity (in town-owned facilities) by 2020; 100 percent renewable electricity townwide by 2030; 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2040; and 100 percent renewable energy townwide by 2050.

Approved plans are just the initial steps toward change, but they can be the toughest. Morgan Goodwin, who was mayor when the resolution passed, and is currently vice mayor, says it was one of the proudest moments he’s had in his four years on the council.

He acknowledges the renewable energy committee was essential in bringing the resolution to life—doing much of the legwork, gathering petitions, getting letters of support and even drafting the plan. Its members are also constantly pushing the conversation to the forefront of people’s agendas, attending meetings where renewable issues are concerned, and rallying the community to oppose coal and nuclear energy. “We had 15 or so people stand up and give really well-thought-out comments (before the resolution passed),” de Lonfontaine says. “That’s the kind of involvement we need. But we need it all the time.”

The group, made up of more than 20 professionals, ranging from lawyers to teachers, also carefully view proposed rates and programs, making sure they’re something of substance, and not just “greenwashing.” They also supported Christa Finn in last year’s run for the Truckee Donner Public Utility District. She ran on a renewable energy platform and was elected.

“Christa’s election spoke volumes,” de Lafontaine says. “I knew through our engagement with the PUD that it was clear we needed some new ways of thinking outside the utility box and we saw that in Christa.”

Both Goodwin and de Lafontaine credit the TDPUD with doing a significant job cultivating green energy for more than a decade, fostering award-winning energy and water conservation programs and “greening up their portfolio.” Its energy efficiency programs are audited every year, creating notable savings on electricity. The TDPUD, a public-owned entity, helped the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency secure a grant for plans to invest in public access charging stations and awarded the local school district $90,000 in energy efficiency rebates. It is also very active in the promotion of electric vehicles, operating several charging stations and providing a $500 residential rebate for residents purchasing chargers for electric vehicles.

“We’re fortunate to have a community that embraces these programs,” says Steven Poncelet of the TDPUD. “You can develop those programs, but it doesn’t help if the community doesn’t use them.”

According to Poncelet, the agency is constantly balancing rates, renewable energy and reliability. It is transmission-dependent, with no local generation or power plants in Truckee. As a result, it imports power through various partnerships, receiving almost a quarter of its power from a wind farm in Idaho, as well as some hydropower facilities. It is also looking at new solar projects.

Goodwin admits the majority of the work is yet to come, but while the steps are granular (solar, charging stations, hybrid snow loaders, retrofitting buildings), they collectively make a substantial impact. He believes that one of the main focal points to reducing emissions is to address local housing issues. “It’s very real, very acute,” he says. “People who work here can’t live here. Transportation is the biggest source of emissions. We’re upping our public transportation, with a free shuttle to downtown during events, earlier morning service so people can get to work, and free fare on the Truckee Area Regional Transit. The more integrated the system, the better.”

The efforts, however, are not just the responsibility of the TDPUD and the town council. De Lafontaine stresses that individuals and businesses alike can support renewable energy by getting engaged and looking for energy efficiency opportunities in their homes, businesses and transportation. They can support policy and action by attending city council meetings, calling and writing local and state representatives, and voting for political candidates who reflect those values.

“It does start with the individual,” she says. “This movement is at the grassroots level, because that’s where it needs to happen right now. Most people moved up to our community because they love the environment. They’re up here for the surroundings. We’re not going to have that if we keep going down this road. Our health, our economy—it’s all affected. We’re like sitting ducks. We want to protect ourselves and our kids’ future.”—K.P.

Downtown Nevada City
Downtown Nevada City, California. Photo by Kial James.

Truckee isn’t the only town benefitting from the work of passionate and motivated citizens. Nevada City has also been on the forefront of renewable energy for some time, claiming a spot on the Sierra Club’s list of communities committed to transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. The city passed an energy action plan in 2015.

Don Rivenes is the chair of the Nevada City 100% Renewables Committee and was integral in getting the city to pass a resolution in 2016. The city’s staff had some reservations about passing the resolution without a plan or a roadmap, but passed it with the idea that a plan would follow. Committee members worked closely with the city to ensure attainable strategies.

“They’ve been instrumental in finding unique funding resources for larger solar plants,” says Amy Wolfson, city planner for Nevada City. “They’re looking at one property in particular (a 100-acre old airport site), which the community is divided on. Since the adoption of the resolution, that’s been one of that committee’s main goals.”

Other opportunities the group has looked at include programs like SEED (Solar Energy and Economic Development). They’re also investigating the possibility of community choice aggregation (programs that allow local governments to procure power on behalf of their residents from an alternative supplier), similar to that of Placer County’s.

Rivenes estimates that only about 160 cities across the U.S. have passed 100 percent resolutions. “We’re doing well in that respect,” she says. “I don’t know that many that have action plans. Nevada City has been at the forefront of solar in the past.”

Nevada City added solar panels to its city hall, public works yard and local swimming pool 10 years ago. While not quite at 100 percent, most of the municipal buildings operate on solar. One of the unique challenges the city faces is the preservation and protection of historic buildings in the face of climate change, but the feat has not proven impossible. The Miners Foundry, an events center that was originally a blacksmith shop built in 1859, recently had extensive solar paneling installed. The entire system is on the south-facing roof, hidden from the street and public view. The city is also currently working with the Methodist Church at the top of Broad Street on a solar project. The church is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and visible buildings in Nevada City.

Wolfson notes the majority of their renewable energy efforts come in the way of educating the community: “A lot of it comes from citizen action groups. They help carry this torch forward.”

Reinette Senum, vice mayor of Nevada City, also credits the town’s climate awareness when it comes to making a difference. “Overall we have a very highly educated community; very aware of climate change and aware that we have to do something now,” she says.

Downtown Grass Valley
Downtown Grass Valley, California. Photo by Kial James.

Senum has been in contact with Gerry Dameron of the Go Green Institute. She says the group is working on a comprehensive book about 500 renewable projects initiated in communities around the world that not only reduce emissions, but also increase the area’s revenue stream. Her objective, Senum says, is to use the book to “come up with ideas, throw them out there, get it into the plan and shepherd them like I did the goat brigade.”

The “goat brigade” made national headlines last December when Senum spearheaded “Goat Fund Me,” a prescriptive goat/sheep grazing program to help clear the underbrush from the city’s 450 acres of greenbelt. The program was a direct and immediate response to the horrific fires less than 100 miles away in Paradise. Senum consulted with local ranchers and local law and fire agencies for the undertaking, with all funds filtering through the Nevada City budget. A number of community demonstrations were scheduled and a variety of outreach materials, including how-to and rancher contact information, were also made available.

“It’s just a sweet, family-friendly, funny way to address a herculean effort we all have to undertake,” Senum said. “It’s very scary. Most people don’t know where to start. This is a place to start.” —K.P.

South Lake Tahoe
South Lake Tahoe, California. Photo courtesy of iStock.

The City of South Lake Tahoe is the third Sierra city to have committed to shifting to 100 percent renewable energy (by 2032), and has made strides in reaching that goal, with projects underway and the local utility provider expanding its renewable energy portfolio.

Currently, Liberty Utilities supplies 25 percent of its energy through renewables, and aims to increase it to 30 percent with the addition of a new 10-megawatt solar facility east of Reno when it comes online later this year. Liberty Utilities also signed a coal-free contract in 2015, so in addition to its own solar facilities, the rest of the energy it needs is purchased through the NV Energy grid (and its contract prohibits any of its energy generation to come from coal-fired plants).

“We are actively looking for ways to ramp up our percentage of renewables for all of our customers,” says John Friedrich, business and community development manager for the Lake Tahoe region at Liberty Utilities. “We are working on green tariffs to get approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, a program that assigns renewable energy to participating customers. So, for example, Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley are planning to participate once it’s approved to be powered by 100 percent renewables. The City of South Lake Tahoe and other customers have that option as well.”

Friedrich says the company is working with the city and the Lake Tahoe Unified School District to identify energy efficiency improvements throughout their facilities and have made progress. For example, LTUSD is saving approximately $250,000 a year by making schools more energy efficient.

He added there is a plethora of programs available for those looking to go green, including free energy efficiency audits and a number of rebate programs for installing electric vehicle charging ports or rooftop solar panels for homes and businesses.

Simultaneously, Liberty Utilities is working to install DC fast chargers throughout the region to encourage the use of electric vehicles. There are also plans to help the school district transition and replace 50 percent of its existing bus fleet with electric buses in the next three years, and install electric vehicle charging stations at school sites.

Elsewhere across town, at the Lake Tahoe Airport, construction starts this spring on solar panels, with plans to be up and running by July. Mark Gibbs, airport manager, says once the solar panels are installed and online, the city will see an annual savings of $271,000, and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 384.27 tons per year. Gibbs says the airport is also undertaking a program to eventually retrofit all lights throughout the property with more energy efficient lighting.

Meanwhile, city officials are working on an energy assessment for city facilities to create a baseline and a direct energy action plan to identify further steps to reduce its energy consumption.

Similarly, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has a 20-year vision for the entire transportation system that will implement strategies to help reduce personal vehicle trips around the lake and create a more efficient transit system for the region.

“California’s fourth Climate Change Assessment this year included a downscale look at the different regions and one of those is the Sierra Nevada,” said Devin Middlebrook, sustainability program coordinator for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. “The data and projections of what could happen by 2100—talking about no more snow at lake level and overall there may be a projected loss of 60 percent of the total snow pack—if that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what does. The fact is we need to take action now to be able to ensure that people in 80 years are ready for those changes that we know are coming…Reducing our emissions now can hopefully make those impacts not as severe. And getting to 100 percent renewable energy and eliminating those carbon emissions is huge.”—W.V.

Reno, Nevada. Photo courtesy of iStock.

On the other side of the mountain, the Biggest Little City is also making efforts to combat climate change by reducing energy consumption and carbon output in buildings around the city.

The City of Reno committed to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 28 percent by 2025 and 40 percent by 2030 through its commitment to the Global Covenant of Mayors on Energy and Climate. As part of that program, the city reports emissions reductions regularly to track progress toward its targets and the City Council approved the use of Building Energy Benchmarking.

The city locally branded its efforts as ReEnergize Reno, which launched last year and is part of U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Building Challenge. The national DOE program aims to make commercial, public, industrial and residential buildings 20 percent more energy efficient through the next decade.

“One of the participants in the program thought that the upgrades they needed to make to their facility were significant, involving HVAC work and replacing broilers,” says Suzanne Linfante, city energy advisor for the City of Reno. “In tracking their energy use, the company was able to pinpoint other issues that needed addressing and realized the initial costly direction they were going to go was not the direction they needed to go. So to us, the program is important because it’s a tool for us to start to look at our own facilities, but it is also a tool to lead by example, and if we are doing these things ourselves, we can pass it along to the community.”

So far the city has committed 51 of its facilities to the program, which totals 131 facilities and nearly 8 million square feet, with more than half of that square footage coming last year with increased participation. At the initial launch of the ReEnergize Reno program, only about three entities signed up to participate. Since then, the number of participants has increased to 14.

Data stemming from the results of the first year won’t be available until later this spring. However, Linfante says she is seeing tangible progress and cites as an example the Washoe County School District, which is currently undergoing lighting and retro commissioning upgrades to all of its school facilities.

LED lighting retrofits have already been completed at city-owned facilities as well, including the Corp Yard, City Hall and City Hall Parking Garage. Since making the efficiency upgrades, the city is saving 23 percent in energy costs at those sites and has reduced the energy demand 16 percent. The city has also started to retrofit its fire stations with energy efficiency upgrades.

City officials are simultaneously working on other measures to increase Reno’s energy efficiency that extend beyond commercial and city-owned buildings. The council adopted the 2018 International Energy Conservation Code, for example, which mandates that all new housing and building developments are to be built with maximum energy efficiency.

With the progress that has already been made and efforts to increase the program’s participants, city officials are optimistic that the deadlines they initially set will be met.—W.V.