Sally Brown

January 20, 2014 | General

Connections: How Cool Is Colorado?

Sally Brown

Sally Brown
BioCycle January 2014

On many levels, Colorado is clearly one cool state. First page of the New York Times on this first day of the New Year is an article about legal marijuana in Colorado. I went to Fort Collins to visit my daughter this past Thanksgiving. While I was there, I relished the blue skies as I explored the extensive trail network all around the city. That was certainly cool. My daughter told me that running there is a real challenge, not just because of the altitude, but because everyone is so fit and so fast. That is also pretty cool. We went to one of the many microbreweries in Fort Collins — yet another sign of cool. So do I pick up and move from Seattle?  Before I called the moving company I decided to look at this through a different lens.
If you shift focus and view Colorado through a sustainability lens, you get a very different picture. While I was walking (too high in altitude and too little oxygen for me to even attempt to jog) to the trails, I noticed that none of the houses had rain barrels or solar panels. While cooking Thanksgiving dinner, the only place to put the food scraps was in with the garbage. These were signs to me that maybe Colorado wasn’t as cool as it could be. Let’s see how cool Colorado really is.

Energy Score

From an energy perspective, Colorado is not cool. According to a U.S. EPA site (, Fort Collins gets 67.8 percent of its energy from coal. This is in comparison to the national average of 44.5 percent. In this land of sunshine 5.2 percent of the mix comes from nonhydro renewables as compared with the national average of 3.6 percent. This is somewhat better but certainly not an enormous amount. And it is about the same as Seattle (certainly not the sunshine capital) for nonhydro renewables. In fact if you check out the solar energy potential, the State of Colorado is in the top six nationally with values across the state greater than 5.5 kWy/m2/day . In comparison, Seattle comes in at about 2.0.
Colorado has a great goal of 30 percent of its power to come from renewables by 2020. There are even some incentives to install solar panels on homes. Xcel Energy, the utility, currently has over 16,000 solar owners. That sounds great until you realize that likely covers at most about 100,000 people out of 5.2 million. Another way to express that is about two percent of the population has solar power. Not so cool.
The other main player in nonhydro renewables is wind. The eastern half of Colorado is one of the windiest parts of the country, with average wind speed over 6.5 m/sec ( gis/wind.html). How much of this potential energy is being tapped?  Wind power has been growing by leaps and bounds (pretty cool), however there is a long way to go. Currently 1,800 MW of generating capacity has been installed. The predicted capacity is 387,220 MW. You can do the division here. If Colorado is serious about its goal, there is likely going to be a lot of construction and retrofitting going on in the next six years.

Water Score

Water shortages are typical in Colorado — one of the reasons why it is such a good place for solar energy. Water shortages are so ingrained in the fabric of Colorado, in fact, that water rights in many cases trump attempts for sustainable water use. For example, capturing rainwater to use for irrigation or toilet flushing is not always legal.  The logic behind this appears to be that, if allowed to flow, storm water will add to the quantity of water available by long-held water rights owners. What it doesn’t consider is how dramatically storm water flow in urban areas deviates from natural patterns. It also doesn’t consider the reduced demands on potable water supplies if alternative sources of water are legal and encouraged.
Grey water use is another example. Grey water is gently used water from homes from sources other than toilets. Water from washers, showers, and sinks are examples. Arizona ( and Washington both allow grey water use with some limitations. Not Colorado. Here public health is the given justification for the prohibition on grey water use. While it is true that grey water can have some pathogen content, appropriate uses, such as irrigation and toilet flushing, present minimal risk and a potential for conservation. In other words, Colorado is clearly not cool from a water perspective.

Organics Score

It does not appear that Colorado has a general ban on putting yard trimmings into landfills. It also appears that while composting is considered to be a good thing, it is not something that municipalities across the state have adopted in a big way. If you take Fort Collins where I stayed, for example, you can see that the city encourages composting ( You are told how to do it, and the city even has a worm exchange site listed on its composting page. But unless you want to do it yourself, it appears that Fort Collins is not compost friendly. While the city picks up recyclables every other week, there is no mention of yard trimmings collection on the municipal level. No green bins here. And if Ft. Collins doesn’t pick up and compost yard trimmings, you can imagine that food scraps collection and composting is in the very distant future.
I decided to check and see about Boulder. Boulder is the much hipper and cooler town about 30 minutes away from Fort Collins. And while there are a few places in Boulder where you can bring your yard trimmings and food scraps, collection and composting by the municipality is again, not standard practice. This leads me to give the state very low ratings on the cool scale for organic residuals.
So is Colorado cool?  From my perspective, the answer is no. While there are some small steps towards coolness from a sustainability perspective, Colorado still has a long way to go. Energy from renewable sources is a real possibility in the state and there are trends and a laudable goal for 2020. However, right now, Colorado is much worse than the national average, getting a majority of its power from coal while it has some of the best potential for both solar and wind power. From a water perspective, I would categorize Colorado as lame — the antithesis of cool. And from a residuals perspective, despite a surface veneer of embracing composting, I would suggest that Colorado is way behind. Trendsetters on this front are popping up all over the country, from California to Vermont to New York City.
So despite the blue skies, microbrews and running trails, I think that I’ll be staying in Seattle for the time being. While we may lack in the blue sky department, we have centralized collection of yard trimmings and food scraps, plenty of hydropower and microbrews. And did I mention, that we legalized marijuana too?
Sally Brown — Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle — authors this regular column. Email Dr. Brown at

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