Want a hot tub at your Colorado ski town home? You might have to offset its emissions first. Breckenridge is adopting a “renewable energy mitigation plan” to offset greenhouse gases from outdoor amenities.

August 15, 2023

Originally published by The Colorado Sun. Written by Mark Jaffe.

BRECKENRIDGE — Starting this month if a homeowner wants to add a hot tub or fire pit to their home in this ski town it is going to cost them — in solar panels, heat pumps or extra cash.

The town has joined a growing number of mountain communities and counties in adopting a “renewable energy mitigation plan” aimed at offsetting the sometimes considerable greenhouse gases outdoor amenities, including pools, driveway snow-melt systems and gas grills, can create.

Summit County is about to follow suit aiming to adopt a similar plan, known as a REMP, in the fall.

The plans calculate the carbon dioxide emitted from these outdoor features and then require an offset in solar panels added to the property — other energy saving devices may also count — otherwise a cash payment must be made to a fund used by the town for climate-related programs.

“We have a lot of high-end outdoor amenities, pools, hot tubs,” said Jessica Burley, Breckenridge’s sustainability and parking manager. “It is fairly unique to mountain communities. We have this outdoor intensity.”

The offset can be met in several ways: photovoltaic solar panels, hot water solar, wind or small hydropower projects. Geothermal heat pumps are good for a partial offset.

“Solar PV is the easiest and most economical,” Burley said.

In Summit County, 62% of the greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings, according to Jess Hoover, climate action director of High Country Environmental Center, a Frisco-based environmental group.

“We have great building codes to address indoor use, but we had no way to discourage outdoor energy use,” Hoover said. “Heating the outdoors is a luxury.”

For well-heeled homeowners the fee is just incidental

Adoption of the Breckenridge plan was preceded by a year of “stakeholder engagement” that gathered input from homebuilders, landscapers and vendors of spas and outdoor fireplaces.

While some of those participants have adopted a wait-and-see approach to its impact on their businesses, officials in towns and counties that already have REMPs say they have had little effect on the desire for a spa or a heated driveway.

“These are often multimillion-dollar homes,” said David Samuelson, the building official in Telluride, which also has a REMP. “If they want a hot tub, they are going to have a hot tub.” In Telluride the mitigation fee — $1,600 for a hot tub — Samuel said, is an incidental.

In 2000, Aspen and Pitkin County were among the first to implement REMPs. Since then, about a dozen others, including Crested Butte, Carbondale and Eagle County, have adopted similar programs.

“The REMP was in response to the pace of development,” said Bonnie Muhigirwa, Aspen’s chief building officer. “We were seeing these amenities on every free-market house.”

“Exterior energy use was 50% of the total home energy use for some residences,” Muhigirwa said. “We knew they were energy hogs but to see the use was really incredible.”

Under the Aspen REMP, the potential carbon dioxide emissions for various outdoor facilities are calculated based either on their consumption of kilowatt-hours or in the case of a fire pit or gas grill in British thermal units.

That carbon emission number is then translated into an offset of an onsite photovoltaic solar panel — the larger the emission the more panels — or for an in-lieu payment in cash. The Aspen fees can be substantial.

For example, a system to melt snow from a 1,000-square-foot driveway would require 17 kilowatts of photovoltaic panels or a $55,000 payment. “These kinds of [energy] loads you wouldn’t see in most places, but are quite common in this market,” Muhigirwa said.

The program originally covered snowmelt systems, pools and spas. In April, roofing heat tape, fire pits, outdoor gas heaters and fireplaces were added.

Since 2000, Aspen has collected $18.3 million in REMP fees, which have gone to a wide range of programs, including promoting energy efficiency upgrades, renewable energy projects, and residential and commercial rebates for weatherization, solar and heat pumps, according to Tessa Schreiner, the city’s climate action manager.

In 2023, Aspen also put an energy cap on new residences of 200 million BTUs for outdoor energy use as part of an updated, energy-efficient building code.

“Over time we are looking at dropping that 200 million BTU cap,” Muhigirwa said. “We’ll let this adoption set in for a while and I am sure that in the next few years we will be looking for a way to go even further.”

In Eagle County, it was the realization that its ECObuild building code, adopted in 2006 to promote energy efficient homes and buildings, needed an outdoor complement that led to the creation of its “exterior energy offset program,” county climate action manager John Gitchell said.

The Eagle County program, like the others, uses a calculation of energy impact for snowmelt systems, spas, hot tubs, and pools and then requires an offset in solar PV or a cash payment.

“It has generated more solar in the county,” Gitchell said. For example, a recent commercial project near Avon put up 7 kilowatts of solar PV, about 20 panels, to avoid a $36,800 REMP fee.

There are, however, some properties that aren’t suitable for solar and opt to pay the fees. The program raises between $200,000 and $300,000 a year, Gitchell said. The money is part of the more than $600,000 the county spends annually in energy efficiency programs.

Telluride isn’t ideal for solar

In Telluride, more than 90% of homes pay the fee. “Our lot sizes are small and we are in a canyon, it really isn’t ideal for solar,” Samuelson said.

The aim in Eagle County though isn’t to raise money.

above view looking down at a large hotel with solar panels on a roof and swimming pool at ground level
When The Charter At Beaver Creek, seen here on Aug. 7, wanted to expand, it faced a fee of more than $300,000 to install a system to melt snow from roads and walkways. The resort got out from under the county’s carbon emissions fee by spending $150,000 on rooftop solar and anticipates the investment will be paid back in 12 years. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

An expansion at The Charter At Beaver Creek, a hotel and condominium complex for which Basso was handling the architecture and landscape master plan, called for a  20,000-square-foot snow-melt system for roads and walkways.

At $16 a square foot that came to a REMP fee of more than $300,000 or 47 kilowatts of solar, said Basso, who also represents solar installer Carbondale-based Sunsense Solar.

The price tag on the solar arrays was about $150,000 and installations will pay for themselves in 12 years by reducing energy bills. “That’s why we offer this service,” Basso said.

It is time, Gitchell said, to revise the Eagle County plan to reflect steps taken in Aspen and Breckenridge. “We are in the process of updating Eagle County’s program to align with the others.”

Breckenridge’s REMP for residential and commercial buildings went into effect Aug. 10, and includes tweaks to temper its impact on development. It also identified some new energy uses such as the heat tape applied to roofs to melt snow.

“Heat tape is the biggest offender, but heat tape from a design viewpoint is a public safety issue,” Burley said.

So, in addition to the offsets these electric roof and gutter deicing systems must have automatic controls capable of shutting off the unit when the outdoor temperature is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and below 25 degrees Fahrenheit.

“If it is too cold the snow just melts and freezes and that is not helpful and if it is warmer you don’t need it,” Burley said. The systems must also have a timer so they only operate during daylight hours.

Natural gas fireplaces, fire pits, or fire tables that are permanent outdoor fixtures also must include timers required to limit their run time.

Exceptions to the rules

The rules do have some exemptions, including the first 100 square feet of snowmelt system and the first 64 square feet of a hot tub or spa. Many of the prefab hot tubs sold in the area fall under the exemption, Burley said.

A 1,000-square-foot snowmelt unit would need, after the 100-square-foot exemption, an offset of 15 kilowatts of solar PV or an in-lieu payment of $52,000. A 10-by-10 custom hot tub, after the exemption, needs a 3.8 kilowatt offset or an $11,000 payment.

One area Breckenridge broke new ground on and which other mountain communities are considering or adding is fire pits, whose sales got a surprising boost from the pandemic.

“The mature programs like Aspen and Pitkin County didn’t contemplate these permanent fireplaces as an issue,” Burley said. “But then we saw more and more of them being built and it went crazy during COVID when everyone wanted to move their living out-of-doors.”

Breckenridge officials discussed the fire pit offset with vendors like Monty Whatley, the owner of Breck Ironworks, which builds custom fire pits ranging from about $3,200 to $8,700.

“We ship those coast to coast, but a big part of business is local,” Whatley said, “Depending on final guidelines it could have a significant impact.”

At the company’s workshop on the north edge of town, workers use traditional welding and plasma welding tools to sculpt steel pipes into logs, twigs and pine cones, which are then arranged into fire pit teepees. There is a bit of art as no two units are the same.

three brown colored metal firepits in shapes of logs in front of a building
Welded firepits on display in front of Breck Ironworks factory, Aug. 4, in Breckenridge. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“If people are already planning on doing solar or one of the other offsets then adding a fire pit may not be an issue,” Whatley said. “If they don’t, well we’ll see.”

Since a lot of the issues around the performance of fire pits, such as how many hours they are run by homeowners and businesses, are uncertain, Breckenridge decided to only require that 10% of the calculated offset for fire pits of 150,000 BTU per hour or less.

Above the 150,000 BTU cap, the owner of the home or business will be responsible for the full offset. Breck Ironworks had suggested a 200,000 BTU cap.

A 150,000-BTU-an-hour fire pit would need 11.2 kilowatts of PV solar for a full offset. At 10% that comes to just 1.1 kilowatts or a $3,900 in lieu payment, which is more than the cost of some fire pits.

Whatley said it remains to be seen how much of a spur the new requirements will be to adding solar and whether the cost of a fire pit is absorbed into the larger cost of landscaping a property.

Breckenridge will collect more data on the use and performance to get a better handle on how much greenhouse gas emissions fire pits really are generating.

Crested Butte has already banned new gas hookups so fire pits are not an issue, Troy Russ, town’s community development director said. The new building code requires all-electric homes.

The town’s REMP, adopted in 2007 and updated in 2020, has led to PV installations at eight properties in the last six years and $160,000 in fees which went to an affordable housing program, Russ said.

“We didn’t feel we could go with a complete ban on natural gas,” Breckenridge’s Burley said. “It would backfire today, we don’t have the workforce for full electrification.”

The fire pit, however, remains a target of the Breckenridge REMP. “A fire pit is flaring natural gas and we can’t let that go unabated,” Burley said. “We are looking forward to having no natural gas in our community in the future.”