Denver: From the Brown Cloud to the Green Light

Share Button

Cara MialeGuest blog by Cara Miale Goman
July 20, 2011

When it comes to the green energy race, it’s not over until it’s over. Just look at the city of Denver.

For years the Mile High City was notorious for its brown cloud, a dirty layer of pollution that not only marred the city’s pristine mountain image, but also caused serious health problems.

Now Denver is the fifth greenest city among 27 rated in the recent US and Canada Green City Index. It falls just behind San Francisco, Vancouver, New York City and Seattle, and ahead of Boston and Los Angeles.

What made the difference for Denver?

No one factor won the day, but the index highlights Greenprint Denver, a city office that coordinates environmental programs across various agencies, engages community members to further its mission, and tracks and publishes results. The program supports Denver’s ambitious policies that promote green energy and energy efficiency in homes or businesses through subsidies or tax breaks, as well as projects to increase locally produced energy. Greenprint Denver is identified in the index as a best-practice model of environmental governance.


As Congress debates ways to undercut federal lighting standards, Denver is giving energy efficiency the green light – literally. In 2010 alone, the city installed 2,000 LED bulbs in 200 traffic signals.

Electricity consumption in Denver is nearly half the index average, at 184 gigajoules per $1 million of GDP. Greenprint Denver’s proactive program supports several energy saving initiatives:

– Evaluation of 300 municipal buildings for solar powered installations

– Assistance to low-income households to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, including attic insulation assessments

– Strict energy regulation for new buildings

Colorado’s Energy Efficiency Resource Standard also sets electricity savings goals of at least 5% of 2006 peak demand and electricity sales by 2018 for Colorado’s two investor-owned utilities. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission extended the electricity sales reduction goals through 2020.

Other initiatives on Denver’s energy to-do list include:

– Install solar PV cells with a combined capacity of four megawatts on city buildings and public schools

– Retrofit the Central Library to improve energy efficiency and reduce bills, saving an estimated $150,000 a year 


Denver was one of only three cities (the other two were New York and Washington DC) to score full marks in the environmental governance category.

The key to this success could be Denver’s “Green Teams” – groups of green-minded friends, families and neighbors who are interested in learning about energy efficiency and other green initiatives, and who seek to expand community participation in the city’s programs. Working closely with Greenprint’s residential program managers, outreach includes offering energy efficient measures like free income-qualified weatherization, subsidized home-energy audits and free CFL porch bulbs.


Denver has several policies aimed at improving the energy efficiency of its buildings—including strict energy regulation for new ones—giving it a strong rank in this category as well. According to the index, for every 100,000 people in Denver, there are 10.2 LEED-certified buildings. Denver makes plenty of great offers to improve energy efficiency, such as incentives for building retrofits, but does not require energy audits that could uncover further inefficiencies.

The index scored 27 cities, among the most populous in the US and Canada, across nine categories – carbon dioxide, energy, land use, buildings, transport, water, waste, air quality and environmental governance – and is composed of 31 indicators, both qualitative and quantitative. Click here to read the full US and Canada Green City Index, a research project conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by Siemens.

Cara Miale is a freelance writer in Denver, Colorado and a frequent contributor to Energy Efficiency Markets.

Share Button


  1. Cara: Very happy to see this. And timely! Energy Outreach Colorado and Denver Housing Authority and others are trying to synch up with XCEL and other utility providers to assure that affordable housing gets its “fair share” of utility provided retrofits of existing multifamily housing. Together with American Council for Energy Efficiency Economy and National Consumer Law Center, the National Housig Trust hosted a meeting among utilities, energy and housing advocates to assure that BOTH renters and low income homeowners benefit from the PUC’s 2020 goals. Denver has it going on! Michael Bodaken, National Housing Trust

  2. And don’t forget to mention that nearby Denver, in the town of Golden,CO, sits the highest performing net-zero energy building in the land: NREL.

  3. And do not forget that just 1/2 mile west of NREL’s new Net Zero building (also in Golden) is the only building which can claim to totally statistically beat out the new NREL building. It is the only Museum in the world to have passed Net Zero 4 years ago and kept on improving. It is Golden Oldy Cyclery & Sustainability (
    This 1979 2 by 4 stick constructed home now houses the Museum, Library, Gallery, Staff, and a massive Permaculture garden to feed the staff. It’s walls are moving to all being 14 to 15 inches thick – with a 7.5 inch add of Poly-Iso (Over R-50) add. It’s ceiling has up to R-100 with a recycled cellulose add (recycled newspapers). The sunroom added made from Recycled Materials like most other construction, provides passive solar heating in winter. Another sunroom is on the way. The home / museum / library / gallery has a net source energy usage of MINUS 29,000 BTUs per sq ft annually. In this budget it does charge the plug in car. The museum / home is an R&D project of a retired AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories scientist … to show what can be done if we address the existing built environment … which is what we really need to do. New pseudo “Green” Mc Mansions will not do any good. We need to fix what we have to be energy producers rather then energy users!

  4. Wow – this is great to hear! Would be interesting to check out the stats for the UK…