30 August 2011

The Greenest Town in All the Land

Yesterday I wrote about the Cray supercomputer and liquid nitrogen ice cream. But while these were interesting highlights of our vacation, they weren't actually the point of the trip. (Shocking, I know.)

We flew to Denver in order to spent the week in and around Boulder. Which happens to be, I'm pretty sure, the greenest town in America.

When I moved to Boulder in 1988, recycling was already huge. We didn't have curbside pickup back then, but everyone took their recyclables to the recycling center (which was bigger and nicer -- even back then -- than Austin's is today).

Fast-forward 23 years. In Boulder, recyclables are picked up curbside every other week, and composting is picked up on the in-between weeks. That's not so different from Austin, where recycling is picked up every other week and lawn clippings are picked up every week on garbage day (and presumably, you could include other compost ingredients as well). What really stood out was all the compost bins I saw around Boulder. Many of them were just extra garbage cans labeled "composting," but there were also a lot of these all-in-one bins:

(While we were there, the local newspaper published a story about the neighboring town of Erie, which has harnessed the methane coming from its landfills to generate enough energy to power half of the city's houses. How amazing is that?!)

Then there's Boulder's solar energy. Solar panels are all over that town, which benefits from 300 days of sun a year. And when it snows, it melts quickly, so the panels are largely unobstructed (as long as there aren't tall trees around...which there happen to be a lot of in Boulder...but that hasn't stopped the people of the fair city from embracing solar power).

We saw countless houses with solar panels on their roofs, but here's a solar array we spotted on someone's large, hillside lot (I believe it's about 4.5 kilowatts):

Seeing all of the solar panels around Boulder, I concluded that the city must have a huge rebate program, so I looked it up. Not so. The program, which began in 2006, only rebates 15% of the tax paid on solar systems -- far less than the 60% or so that Austin is paying toward our solar panels. (Another part of the program subsidizes solar panels for low-income housing, but none of the houses I saw were low-income.) While it's not surprising that Boulderites would embrace solar despite lack of financial incentives, I was perplexed at first that the city wouldn't have a more robust rebate program. But then Steve suggested that it might be because Boulder isn't as concerned about having to build a new power plant (which is Austin's rationale for the big rebates -- if they can induce enough individual homeowners to have their own mini power plants on their roofs, the city won't have to construct another power plant). Because the city has a height limit on buildings (to preserve the amazing view of the mountains) and can't expand any further due to public "open space" all around, Boulder may not actually be experiencing increasing energy demands like Austin is. (Just a theory.)

And then there are the Priuses. Tons of them all around town. This one was fun to see, though, because it's a plug-in hybrid. (As it boldly proclaimed.)

Here's Steve, pretending to plug it in. (It has the regular gas door by the back wheel, but another door for the plug up by the side mirror.)

So there are some of the green highlights from our week in Boulder. Have I mentioned that I'd move back there in a heartbeat? Just as soon as someone invents a helicopter that can lift our house and transport it there.

Oh -- one green feature you won't find in Boulder? Rain barrels. They're illegal in Colorado. Unlike in Austin, where the city will pay thousands of dollars to help homeowners harness our occasional, heavy downpours to keep so much water from ending up in the sewer system, Colorado law (based on principles dating to the 19th century) prohibits anything that keeps excess rainwater from flowing downstream (even just down the street) to its rightful "owner" (water law is wacky). Even setting a bucket out in a rainstorm is totally verboten. So Boulderites aren't on the rainwater collection bandwagon, but I'm pretty sure they'd be all over it if they could.

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