From Boulder's website:
"Society is approaching a critical juncture in confronting the climate crisis, and the Boulder community has an important role to play...
- ...Build resilience and strengthening community capacity to adapt and thrive."
As part of our effort to raise awareness of the need to improve our home resilience and to educate homeowners in the U.S on solutions to climate risks, we gather information on resilient actions, strategies, and challenges from key cities in the U.S.
In this blog, we focus on the city of Boulder, Colorado, and its climate resilience. Boulder is located within the Denver metropolitan area along the front range of the Rocky Mountains.
I spoke with Carolyn Elam, Energy program strategy manager in the city of Boulder, and with Christin Whitco, Former Energy Code Coordinator in Boulder. They specified the challenges and the efforts that the city of Boulder undertakes to adapt to a changing climate.
Boulder is working hard to tackle the various climate change impacts. City residents not only are exposed to climate risks, many experienced extreme events themselves.
- Flood: Boulder has the highest flood risk in Colorado, at least in terms of the percentage of properties exposed to flood risk (13%).
The floods occur due to a rise in water level in either rivers or creeks, resulting from an extreme weather event or damage to a dam, and affect homes in Colorado flood zones.
The city has experienced two 100-year flood events (events that occur once in 100 years), the first in 1894 and the more recent in 2013. The latter was due to an unprecedented heavy rain, and it destroyed homes, and infrastructure, isolated the city and resulted in extremely high costs to repair damages.
- Storms: According to NOAA, Boulder experiences snowstorms, high wind events, and the highest peak wind (highest wind speed observed). Boulder’s power transmission system is above ground and is therefore vulnerable to those events.
- Wildfire: In 2020 Boulder experienced the longest fire season on record. It included three major wildfires. One of them, the CalWood fire, was the largest the county has ever seen. That is, until this year. 2022 raised the priority of wildfires on Boulder’s list of climate hazards.
While the Marshall Fire was outside of the Boulder City limits, it was the most destructive in Colorado history destroying more than 1,000 homes in Boulder County. The Marshall Fire happened mid-winter, which illustrates that there is no such thing as a fire “season” anymore. This wildfire was followed by multiple wildfires in 2022, including the NCAR fire that led to the evacuation of about 8,000 Boulder residents. The fires in recent years destroyed many homes, and most residents along the front range, including the City of Boulder, experienced hazardous air quality.
- Air Quality: The ozone problem in the Denver metropolitan area in which Boulder is located has been downgraded from “serious” to “severe”. The ozone levels in the area are higher than EPA’s air quality standard, which can cause breathing-related issues such as bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma, as well as skin and eye damage.
- Heat: In recent years Boulder is experiencing more extreme temperatures and weather events, including a significant increase in the number of high-temperature summer days, and more severe snow events earlier in the year.
- Drought: April of 2022 is being recorded as the driest month in 130 years. Colorado sees an increasing frequency of drought conditions, adding to water security concerns. Similarly, changes in the patterns of snow precipitation and melting also affect Boulder’s water security. If snowmelt increases in the winter, it may decrease the water supply in the dry season.
Boulder adopts new building codes for energy every three years and general building codes every six years. The City’s website provides access to the relevant codes.
- Boulder adopted the International Code Council (ICC) suite of codes for residential and commercial buildings, with local amendments.
- The city has its own aggressive energy code, “The City of Boulder Energy Conservation Code,” which is 20-25% more stringent than the national code. This energy code is updated every three years. The energy code considers the cool-dry climate zone (climate zone 5B) for materials, HVAC, and water systems.
- SmartRegs program: all licensed rental houses are required to comply with a basic energy efficiency standard.
- Boulder adopted the 2018 International Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Code to protect homes from wildland fire risks.
Boulder participates in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and requires homeowners in high-risk floodplains in flood zone Boulder Colorado to purchase it. Carolyn Elam mentions that the insurance for high risk flood area creates a significant financial burden on residents in those locations.
The City's Resilient Actions
- The City of Boulder is expecting to put a measure on the ballot in November 2022 for a new Climate Tax that will replace two of the existing taxes and provide an increase of about 25% in revenue for the city's climate work.
- Boulder works in close partnership with Boulder county to provide the EnergySmart program that provides free sustainability consulting to improve your home’s energy, water, and waste habits. Through the program, the energy advisor helps with heating and cooling recommendations, connects homeowners with contractors, and assists homeowners with financing and rebates, including around $40,000 annual rebates from the city.
- The city helps homeowners with inspection and assessments to comply with code requirements to reduce the exposure to wildfire risk, such as verifying a safe radius around homes and reducing potential fuel. The city also provides information for professionals and the public regarding the adopted fire code.
Boulder put together an action guide for homeowners to prepare for an event of a wildfire and steps to take in case of a needed evacuation.
- The City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks has been working together with the community for decades, to mitigate shared fire risks through different initiatives.
- The city is home to five mobile home parks that have about 1,300 mobile and manufactured homes. Occupants with lower income are provided with a free home repair program to help with home improvements such as installing storm windows and insulation. In addition, they receive incentives for purchasing low-cost air filters and training programs. Boulder also used grant funds to purchase one of the mobile home parks to ensure it remains available for affordable housing and address major resilience vulnerabilities such as floods. The city is currently upgrading infrastructure at the site, and adding flood mitigation measures. Over time, the city aims to replace mobile with permanently affordable net-zero modular construction.
- The city provides protection for homeless people and lists all shelters in the city limits.
Recommended Resilient Strategies
Following are examples of the city experts' recommended strategies that may help improve home resilience from the climate risks that threaten Boulder:
- The city emphasizes the importance of a proper building envelope (proper insulation and airtightness) through its building codes, which leads to more efficient buildings that can retain the interior temperature longer during a power outage. Carolyn Elam recalls that after Hurricane Sandy, while many people managed to withstand the storm itself, most eventually had to evacuate due to the prolonged power outage; some, however, were able to ride out the power outage thanks to investments they had made in efficiency improvements to their home.
- Heat pumps are an efficient heating and cooling technology that can also improve indoor air quality.
- Installing flood vents allows floodwater to flow freely in a crawl space without creating pressure on the walls or the foundation (for homes located in floodplains).
- Elevating critical equipment above the flood zone (for homes located in floodplains) will lower the risk of damage to electric appliances.
- Avoid investments in some areas: there are conveyance zones in Boulder established to redirect flood water flow in the desired direction. In these areas and in some floodplain zones where the flood risk is relatively high, new development should be avoided. Ideally, some existing homes in a floodplain location should be removed. In fact, the city plans to relocate two of its offices that are exposed to high-velocity floodwater risk.
- For existing buildings, it is essential to keep good maintenance and to be able to exhaust flood water.
- Residents should obtain the required education on preparedness for climate events and the declining air quality.
As previously mentioned, the city allocates roughly $40,000 in annual rebates for improving energy efficiency through the Energy Smart program for:
- Purchasing a new air source or ground source heat pump.
- Purchasing a heat pump water heater.
- Replacing natural gas equipment with heat pumps.
- Improving the insulation of the foundation, walls, and attic.
- Properly air sealing the foundation and attic.
- Solar tax rebates for installations of electric solar or thermal solar water systems.
- Solar grants for lower-income households.
- Energy loans from Credit Union help finance energy-efficient solutions such as renewable solar energy, new windows, and energy-efficient appliances.
- The city plans an incentive program for solar generation and a battery backup solution to meet Boulder’s 100 MW of renewable energy generation.
Generally, the city does not endorse building professionals, although Christin Whitco reassures that Boulder has a great architectural community available. Yet, you can find contractors in lists of programs that the city participates in:
- The city provides a list of contractors for improving energy and water efficiency (energy auditors, HVAC installers, insulation installers, and more) through the EnergySmart [EC3] program.
- The city refers to a list of certified home energy raters from the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) to help with compliance with the residential energy code.
- Some Boulder professionals are listed on the Colorado green builders guild. The organization sponsors green building professionals such as architects, builders, designers, and realtors. Christin Whitco recalls that the guild’s initial vision was energy efficiency, but recently, there is more focus on resilience.
Boulder keeps all risk-related information on its website and makes sure to refer the public to the relevant information. The website provides information on floods, including an interactive map of flood zones.
This information is available for people looking into making home improvements or purchasing a new home.
The city has aggressive plans for campaigns and education. It engages in marketing campaigns, including social media platforms such as Facebook and Nextdoor.
Residents can sign up to receive the city’s newsletter. The city distributes general news and information as well as specific topic newsletters.
Boulder also includes information and education regarding the water supply within the water utility bill.
Boulder faces many climate challenges. Some of them are noticeably becoming more extreme. For example, there is an increase in snowfall and its persistence before melting in recent years. Therefore, the city’s snow removal operation will need to be modified. If it was good enough to move the snow to the side of roads in the past, now there is a need to remove the snow altogether as it accumulates faster and in larger quantities. Similarly, Boulder continues to see increasing wildfire events and more consecutive high-temperature days, increasing the demand for centralized cooling solutions.
While Boulder has long been a leader in tackling climate change from the standpoint of reducing emissions, the challenges facing the community as the climate continues to change are ones that the city sees as requiring greater attention in the coming years. Carolyn Elam believes this is an area needing greater focus and notes it is one that the city is discussing with the council.
Yet, the city experts agree that with significant leadership in the design of sustainable buildings, and with proven success stories such as a 16% reduction in GHG emissions over the last 15 years and a 10% electricity use reduction for residential homes due to increased efficiency, the city’s challenges can be tackled.
Finally, what can residents do to improve the resilience of their homes, communities, and their city?
- Become knowledgeable of the risks that a changing climate exposes in their city and its challenges.
- Plan and be prepared to take action during a climate-related event. Know where you can seek shelter if you have to evacuate your home. Know what steps to take in the event of a sustained power outage, such as how to shut your water off and drain your pipes, so they don’t freeze.
- Leverage existing incentives that the city and county provide to make their home truly sustainable - resilient to local risks and eco-friendly.
- Find licensed and accredited professionals that can build/fix to code and get the best return on investment.