Net Zero Cities: Pandemic speeds adoption of sustainable practices

The COVID-19 pandemic unevenly affected efforts in the region to move cities toward net zero energy and sustainability practices, but on balance it likely sped up adoption of new practices, thanks to collaboration put on steroids.

Several members of a panel at the virtual BizWest Net Zero Cities conference, which opened today, made that observation when discussing the effects that they saw over the past 13 months since the pandemic forced a shutdown in the economy.

Without a doubt, the pandemic affected some industries more than others, particularly those with a lot of customer contact such as restaurants and hotels. And it slowed adoption of renewable power because of supply-chain issues, said Berenice Garcia Tellez, an economic sustainability specialist with the city of Longmont.

But, “we pretty quickly came to understand that you can’t have sustainability and resiliency without equity; they are all tied together,” said Adam Crowe, economic development manager within the Larimer County Economic and Workforce Development office. Crowe was referencing how many of the people affected most by the pandemic worked in industries populated by women and people of color and were working at jobs that paid less than those in industries that survived the pandemic without significant damage. Solutions had to take that into account.

“The pandemic caused us to rethink how we structure government and allocate resources,” said Christine Berg, a senior policy director for local government in the Colorado Energy Office.

“Carbon emissions were down 11% [during the pandemic], which shows what can happen when there’s behavioral change,” she said. Local governments figured out that they could do more things online, such as permitting and building inspections. Closed government buildings required less energy, and thus savings could be applied elsewhere within communities, she said.

Shayle Sabo, project manager for Larimer County, said that recovery plans, which still are under development, need to be long-term, which will likely mean that normal might look different. Recovery needs to be “economically feasible, socially equitable and sustainable from an environmental perspective,” she said.

The pandemic accelerated permanent changes in where people work, when they work, how they shop and more, Crowe said, all of which could result in a more-sustainable, environmentally friendly society that consumes less energy.

Industries that have grown during the pandemic — construction and high tech among them — often feed into changes that can help cities and the region achieve net zero energy, he said. Those changes are forcing educators and industry leaders to consider new career pathways so that tomorrow’s workforce can be ready.

Government, meanwhile, is helping drive some of the changes with emission-reduction goals meant to slow climate change. While utilities have announced plans to shut down coal-fired power plants — plans that fit within the state’s emission reduction targets — efforts also are underway to help reduce energy consumption.

“The cheapest energy reduction is the kilowatt hour you don’t use,” Berg said.

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The COVID-19 pandemic unevenly affected efforts in the region to move cities toward net zero energy and sustainability practices, but on balance it likely sped up adoption of new practices, thanks to collaboration put on steroids.

Several members of a panel at the virtual BizWest Net Zero Cities conference, which opened today, made that observation when discussing the effects that they saw over the past 13 months since the pandemic forced a shutdown in the economy.

Without a doubt, the pandemic affected some industries more than others, particularly those with a lot of customer contact such as restaurants and hotels. And it slowed adoption of renewable power because of supply-chain issues, said Berenice Garcia Tellez, an economic sustainability specialist with the city of Longmont.

But, “we pretty quickly came to understand that you can’t have sustainability and resiliency without equity; they are all tied together,” said Adam Crowe, economic development manager within the Larimer County Economic and Workforce Development office. Crowe was referencing how many of the people affected most by the pandemic worked in industries populated by women and people of color and were working at jobs that paid less than those in industries that survived the pandemic without significant damage. Solutions had to take that into account.

“The pandemic caused us to rethink how we structure government and allocate resources,” said Christine Berg, a senior policy director for local government in the Colorado Energy Office.

“Carbon emissions were down 11% [during the pandemic], which shows what can happen when there’s behavioral change,” she…