The phone call is a bit staticky at first, then it cuts out all together.
“I think it’s probably my phone, you know we live off in the middle of nowhere,” says Dina Elder, a resident of Gold Hill for the last 25 years, when we reconnect after several attempts. She has to stay standing in the same place, though, otherwise the connection gets fuzzy again. The situation seems apropos for the purposes of this article — a story about the small mountain community’s resiliency and sustainability efforts.
Founded in 1859, the historic mining town west of Boulder has a rich history — the oldest continuously operating school in the state is there, for instance. But Gold Hill, like other Boulder County mountain communities, is also increasingly vulnerable — small, spread-out, remote and often exposed to extreme weather, intensified in recent years by climate change.
Ever since the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire threatened to destroy the town and the 2013 flood washed out roads below it, effectively cutting residents off from the rest of the Front Range, Gold Hill has been searching for solutions. Rising temperatures along with Colorado’s drought have increased fire risk in the area, which along with severe wind events and winter storms, can easily threaten the above-ground power lines. Already, it’s not unusual for residents to lose power at times. This can be detrimental given there is no municipal water and electric pumps power the area’s wells. Electricity generated down the mountain also powers heat, food storage, communication systems and more.
“They are always going to be geographically isolated, but the problem is these issues are more exacerbated by climate change,” says Susie Strife, sustainability coordinator for Boulder County. “The idea is really to become a lot more resilient in the face of these climate impacts that we know we’re headed towards and are experiencing already.”
To help with these efforts, Gold Hill was awarded a grant for $65,000 as part of the Renewable and Clean Energy Challenge, through the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) at the end of October. The state-wide program is part of a larger effort to reach Colorado’s 100% renewable energy goal by 2040. For Gold Hill, the money — mostly from the state, with matching funds from Boulder County— will be used to develop a resilient and renewable energy plan for the community based on the recommendations laid out in a recent report prepared by Adaptation Services Group (ASG). Based in Boulder, ASG works exclusively with local governments to understand climate risks and what should be done about them.
“Everything is so interconnected,” says Elder, a member of the Gold Hill Sustainability Advisory Board, an informal, unelected board associated with the town meeting. “Energy plays a big role in having access to water, food, warmth, so this is a good place to start.”
The ASG report lays out the variety of issues facing Gold Hill, as well as adaptation measures the community can implement to be more prepared. That plan includes local solar generation plus storage, a self-sufficient system that could run for hours, even days, if connection to the power grid was cut off. There’s even the possibility that in the not-too-distant future, Gold Hill could run off 100% renewable energy, says the report’s author and ASG founder Seth Portner. “It’s in that sort of thinking stage,” he says, “but it wouldn’t be that hard.”
The vision isn’t to build a typical solar garden, though, as it would do little in the face of large-scale natural disasters. Something like micro-grids with battery back-up to provide local energy services during power outages might make more sense, explains Marcus Moench, also from the Sustainability Advisory Board. But no decisions have been made as to what the final solution will look like, and the first step will be community outreach and engagement so that all of Gold Hill is involved.
“The design process is what’s really critical because that’ll help define what the community really needs, what is affordable and how to do that, and that’s where we don’t want cut-and-paste solutions,” Moench says. “We would really want to make sure that it addresses what the community sees as its highest priority needs.”
Elder agrees: “It’s important that this be community-led in the sense that we want to develop something that is really going to work up here.”
Whatever the final result, Strife says, the hope is to create a framework other mountain and rural communities in Boulder County, and across the state, can use in their own resiliency efforts. Since the grant award was announced she says, a community on the Western Slope has already inquired about what Gold Hill is planning. “We know this project can have applications outside of Boulder County,” she says. “How [can we] help these mountain communities create more resilient power systems and also more social cohesion so that they can face the shock and stressors of climate change?”