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Denver’s climate change “czar” has a mission and millions of dollars to start carrying it out

A vote to boost sales taxes to combat greenhouse gas emissions hands a big fund to the climate change office, which has equally big goals on changing everything from building structure to recycling habits.

Grace Rink, chief climate officer of Denver’s first Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency, poses for a portrait on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Denver's Green Buildings Ordinance requires a roof compliance for new buildings 25,000 square feet or larger, as seen at the rooftop of the Mordecai Children's Garden. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
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State machinations on climate change get a lot of attention in Colorado, but the city of Denver also wants to get in on the game. Denver now has its own climate change office, and thanks to a vote by taxpayers in November, the office will have about $40 million a year to distribute to cut greenhouse gas emissions within city boundaries. The Colorado Sun sat down with the office’s director, Grace Rink, to search out the city’s priorities on everything from charging people more to throw away garbage to buying electric bikes and creating bike share “libraries,” where those in need can check them out to ride to work. 

Colorado Sun:  Is it fair to call you the Denver climate change czar? 

A: Does it need to be feminized to czarina? I have two titles, I’m the chief climate officer, which is always a really easy one to use. And then there’s the long one which is the executive director of the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency. 

CS: Well, let’s start with green buildings: the public passed a green roof law that was changed to make it more flexible, and offers options to install roof gardens, solar panels, or other green strategies. How do you feel that has worked out in terms of actually making changes to buildings that are in the pipeline? 

A: It’s a very good ordinance. I think it definitely has had an impact. Sixty-five buildings have been required to comply with that ordinance, And most of them chose the energy efficiency option. A decade ago, telling buildings that they would need to improve their energy efficiency by any percentage would have been heavy lift for many buildings, and now it’s simply standard practice.

CS: OK. I’ll give you an open ended one: What are the other most important initiatives that the office is working on? 

A: The majority of greenhouse emissions in Denver are from energy use in buildings and homes — 66% of emissions is from that sector alone. That is where we need to put a lot of our emphasis, and a lot of our efforts. Our office just this year has come out with a number of plans, and a new proposed ordinance that we’re moving on very quickly. We released our net-zero implementation plan. The objective with that plan is to modify Denver’s building codes for new construction, so that in 2030 zero-emission buildings are required. So that’s a big one. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The next one is a building performance policy. In Denver, we already have a benchmarking ordinance requiring all buildings 25,000 square feet and larger to report their energy use to the city every year. This new requirement to show energy reductions hasn’t been presented to council yet, but we’re certainly hoping to get there before the end of the year: this new policy would require that by 2030, all those existing buildings 25,000 square feet and larger would be required to reduce their energy use 30% by 2030. 

Sixty percent of the buildings that exist now are still going be standing in 2050. If we don’t help them change their energy systems to be more efficient and eventually reach net-zero, then you know that we’re not going to make a dent in that emissions inventory.

CS: You note that Denver voters approved a new sales tax hike to create a Climate Protection Fund, this past November. Is that money accumulating right now, and is it going out the door? 

A: It passed with almost 65% of the votes! And what it did was create a 0.25% sales tax that will generate about $40 million a year, directed straight to our office, specifically for climate action work. And the objective of the fund is for those dollars to be used on new additive projects and programs that directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality and have direct benefits for the people and communities who are most harmed by climate change impacts. The Climate Protection Fund is actually only the second taxpayer fund directly dedicated to climate action work in the United States. Only Portland has a fund like it.

electric bike sharing Denver climate office bike library
An example of a sharing station for electric bikes, an idea Denver’s climate office is now funding. This station is seen at the University of Tennessee in 2011. The station includes an integrated bike rack with a battery-charging kiosk that distributes batteries to students who check out e-bikes. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, J. Miles Cary)

CS: How do groups, nonprofits, individuals get access to it? 

A: As a city agency, we are required to issue requests for proposals. We are definitely tailoring a lot of our programs to meet the needs of the small nonprofit community, that’s a lot of the people who are doing the groundwork in our communities, especially in our under-resourced communities. And we have been working with them all year, to understand what types of projects they want to have funded.

CS: What would be a typical project to fund that would be tangible to people? 

A: First off, we already have issued some RFPs so we actually do have dollars already going out the door. The very first financial commitment that we made was for e-bike libraries. There are folks who are, these are under-resourced individuals who need assistance getting into full-time work. One of the biggest obstacles facing this population is transportation between home and work. And so by providing e-bike libraries, this is one more resource that the social service organizations have to offer to the people who they’re serving to not only help them find a job, and keep that job, but get the transportation to and from their job. There are two e-bike libraries, one in Swansea and one in Sun Valley, both funded at $250,000 for three years.

CS: Do you have another funded project to talk about? 

A: In the downtown area, there are about 120 buildings that are on the Steam loop system for their heating. Being on that system has become very expensive because the rates went up 40% in just the last year. Those buildings interested in disconnecting from the steam system have a choice. They can hook up to the natural gas system. Or they can switch out their equipment to electrical — electric space heating, electric water heating, powered by clean electrical energy. But right now, the electrical conversion is 10% to 30% more expensive than switching to natural gas. We are offering an incentive to cover that gap. And we have allocated $4 million towards that program. The cost can be as high as $1 million a building.

We need to start reducing the amount of emissions that we collectively are putting into the atmosphere immediately. And so once we get the buildings converted, then they are forever on the electrical grid, and they would not ever be using other fossil fuel sources. Xcel’s grid is getting greener. 

CS: In terms of your own work, are you a liaison, or a bullhorn between different agencies and getting them to work together?

A: I would definitely not say bullhorn because people don’t tend to react nicely to bullhorns. I would say I’m a cheerleader and a champion, and also a problem solver. We are asking city government to do work it’s never done before, or we’re asking city government to do work it’s always done in a completely different way. And either one of those requires that we come to the table as a partner, acknowledging that what we’re asking them to do is hard and different and that we need to understand their pain points.

CS: Does it help if you come to the table with money?

A: It absolutely does. There’s no doubt about it. Our colleagues have been very understanding in giving us the space and time to really define how these dollars are supposed to work. And I think all the other agencies absolutely understand that $40 million a year is great, but we can’t fund everything. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

CS: Back to the individual issues, does your office have a role in the electrification of driving, which is a goal of people working on climate change issues? 

A: We do, as a matter of fact. Mayor Hancock has made it very clear that equity is all of our responsibility. When it comes to electrified mobility, that definitely falls on us. Under the (federal) CARES Act, our agency received $300,000 that we provided to Colorado CarShare to expand into under-resourced neighborhoods. For the same reason I mentioned earlier with e-bikes, that these are neighborhoods that were really left stranded by the curtailment in RTD services. And so through this program, we funded seven electric vehicles that are car-share vehicles. The funding also provides subsidized memberships for up to 450 people in those neighborhoods. It starts small, but it’s a type of program that if it proves itself to be popular and useful, we can easily scale that up with more vehicles and in the same communities with more subsidized memberships.

CS: Garbage and waste recycling are obviously hot topics with residents in any city. Is this something that you are getting involved in, in terms of whether we try to expand composting, whether you start charging people by the pound or some other mechanism, beyond the property taxes they already pay? 

Crews at Alpine’s Altogether Recycling go through their daily process of sorting through mountains of recyclable materials on July 20, 2018 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A: Yes, we are involved. There’s a parity issue here, too. The 60% of residents in single-family homes, and up to seven multifamily units, have garbage and recycling picked up by the city. And they pay property taxes for that. But for buildings with eight or more units, they pay a private service for waste hauling, and they also pay property taxes. So there’s a bit of a subsidy there (for single-family residents.) 

Our role in this is really about outreach and education around why we should be recycling and composting and how to do it better and more effectively, so that we can increase our landfill diversion rate. We have a landfill diversion rate of 26% — that’s below the national average of 34%. Our diversion rate has gone up, 1% or 2%, every year for 20 years. So over a 20-year period we’ve increased from a 6% diversion rate to 26%. But if we stay at this pace, the same business as usual, it will take another 25 years for us to get to a point where we’re diverting just 50% of our waste from landfill, and we really need to do better than that.

I think the people of Denver want to do better than that. But we need to change our waste paradigm, in order to get there. So, there has been discussion for many years that the city’s customers should be charged a fee for their waste disposal, and that it should be a system where customers are charged for their garbage but they get recycling and composting for free. Right now it’s the opposite — you get garbage and recycling for free but you pay for compost. To be clear, there is not yet an ordinance for City Council to consider.

CS: You used the word “discussion” about paying for garbage service. That’s not the same as “consensus.”

A: I think there is consensus on the climate value of a system that would charge for waste hauling, because it would incentivize our customers to divert more of their own waste to recycling and composting, than putting it in their waste bin, because they would pay less. And who wouldn’t want to pay less for something? Going from zero to any fee is difficult. I think there’s consensus around the value in it, in that it would change behavior, but there’s not consensus about when is the right time to actually start a program.

CS: Is there another area of renewable energy you are working in? 

A: Another one of our early investments from the Climate Protection Fund is community solar. We have identified 10 sites of city-owned buildings where we are going to install solar carports. Picture a really big parking lot, with a carport over all the parking spaces, but rather than just being a roof, it would be solar panels, and they are going to generate a lot of solar power as a community solar installation. Our city agencies will be the primary subscribers to that power, but the Denver Housing Authority will receive 10% of all the power from those arrays, and we’re going to reserve another 10% of the power for fully subsidized subscriptions for low income households. Community solar is a great thing for people who want to participate in renewable energy, but either can’t afford to put it on the roof, or maybe they don’t own their home. 


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