Carbondale considers a vote on carbon fee

A large solar array near Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale.
Staff Photo |

Carbondale environmental groups are rallying to put a carbon fee on the April ballot. If they succeed, residents will have to decide if they’re willing to take a hit to the pocketbook for the cause.

Carbondale 2020 coalition is meeting with community members Thursday to discuss details of the potential ballot item.

The idea of the carbon fee was prompted after federal and state grants for clean energy dried up but supporters still want to pursue clean energy goals adopted by Garfield County local governments in 2006.

These goals for the year 2020 are to increase energy efficiency and reduce energy consumption both by 20 percent, cut petroleum use by 25 percent and produce 35 percent of the area’s electricity from renewable sources.

Carbondale, which has transformed from a town tied to coal mining that ended in the 1980s to an environmental haven, has made progress toward the goals. The town reduced consumption of electricity by 6.5 percent and natural gas by 3.5 percent from 2009 to 2014, said Erica Sparhawk, program and services coordinator for Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER).

While those numbers sound small, she said, most projections show that communities that do nothing to combat energy consumption will see increased use each year.

“All the local governments in the county adopted these goals, but Carbondale in particular is serious about making them happen,” she said.

That means the town must find a way to pay for clean energy projects.

“Carbondale has taken significant action on climate protection with annual support from our general fund,” said Mayor Stacey Bernot. “We need to create a stable, ongoing funding source for this investment that doesn’t have to compete with other important municipal operations.

“We’re proud of what Carbondale has achieved to date on cutting carbon emissions, and it’s because of our town’s pioneering, innovative residents that we are working to do even more to address this critical problem,” she said.

If the carbon fee is passed by Carbondale voters, residents would see the extra charge on their electric and natural gas bills.

The fee would be based on usage: the more of a utility you use, the higher the carbon tax will be.

The price point has yet to be settled. But the cooperating organizations, which includes town trustees, the Carbondale environmental board, Community Office for Resource Efficiency and CLEER, have calculated that the average residential fee would be $7 per month and the average commercial fee would be $30 per month.

However, the commercial carbon fee could vary widely among business types, said Sparhawk. A restaurant, for example, is far more energy intensive than a typical office building, she said.

Proponents envision the carbon fee working in two directions: Paying more will encourage users to cut back on energy consumption, and the money that is generated would be invested in clean energy projects.

This money, which Carbondale 2020 estimates to be about $300,000 per year, could be rebated to residents and businesses that make clean energy upgrades, which the fee would already encourage due to higher prices.

The proposal anticipates assistance for low-income residents and families already struggling to pay their utility bills, said Sparhawk.

And besides spreading the wealth, the coalition is considering using that money for larger-scale projects like a solar farm.

“Carbon fees harness market forces to encourage local investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy,” said Michael Hassig, a former Carbondale mayor working with Carbondale 2020. “We have to take what steps we can, now, right here in our own community, to reduce fossil fuel consumption.”

“The money stays in Carbondale, creating a funding source that allows the entire community to make efficiency and clean energy upgrades, said Hassig. “It’s a clear statement of our community values and an essential investment in our community’s future.”

During discussion about the carbon fee, the Board of Trustees was concerned with how it will affect families and low-income residents, said Sparhawk. “But climate change studies are also showing that the low- and middle-income people will take the brunt of the impact. What’s exciting is that we’re making our community more resilient for whatever the future brings.”

The carbon fee program would run for five years, getting the community to 2020 and letting residents consider if they want to vote for it again.

Boulder has already instituted a carbon fee, and Sparhawk said it would be a big statement for Carbondale to be the first small community to tackle it as well.

Trustees are expected to vote in January to place the issue on the April ballot, she said.

Carbondale 2020’s community meeting will run from 5-7 p.m. Thursday in the Third Street Center’s Calaway Room.

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