Changing the Game: Boulder’s Clean Energy Goals, and How a Lego Game Shows How To Reach Them

Changing the Game: Boulder’s Clean Energy Goals, and How a Lego Game Shows How To Reach Them
Teaser Image Caption
In "Changing the Game" you use Legos and change cards to turn a traditional energy system into the most energy-efficient system possible.
This article was originally published on The Boulder Stand.

What if there were a way for Boulder to visualize what would happen if the city were to take more aggressive action for reducing carbon emissions, or to map what it would look like to meet its renewable energy targets through municipalization? Lego blocks and “Change Cards” provide just such a tool, offering insight into the technological, economic and political challenges to making Boulder’s clean-energy and carbon-reducing visions a reality.

In July I traveled to the E.U. as a Heinrich Böll Climate Media Fellow, to learn about policies that the EU and Germany are implementing to transition to a carbon-free economy and translate them to U.S. policy-makers.  My first stop took me to Copenhagen, home to the inventors of “Changing the Game” — a game that allows you to dream up your ideal energy scenario for a region in Europe in 2030 and see if you can get there under realistic technological and economic conditions.  The Game uses Lego towers to visually capture the basic principles of the energy system.  As you implement policy measures throughout the game using “Change Cards” that modify the energy system, the Lego towers are altered in tandem, so that the changes are visualized.

Participating in a round of Changing the Game on day two of my travels, I learned that even with a well-educated and ambitious group, it’s pretty difficult to overcome the technological and economic constraints to meeting renewable energy and carbon reduction targets.  Despite the cultural and political differences between Europe and the U.S., there are similar constraints to transitioning to a carbon-free economy on either side of the Atlantic.  Even for Boulder, the Game offers insight into what it will take to reach municipal climate and clean energy goals.

The recent election shows that Boulder is still intent on exploring taking control of its electricity supply.  The city is pursing municipalization in part because of the possibility to more actively implement clean and renewable energy.  If Boulder adopts a carbon neutrality goal for 2050 (or an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions if that goal can’t be met) then more renewables will have to be part of the picture — a goal that the City Council is expected to approve next year.  A City Council memo notes that to reach the long-term carbon neutrality goal, energy from renewable sources will need to increase “by as much as 50 percent in the next seven to 10 years.”

The city of Boulder’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) includes multiple measures and city assistance that individuals and organizations can take advantage of to reduce their carbon footprint, from building more efficient buildings, to using public transit.  Yet, even with CAP in place, Boulder has continually failed to reach past carbon reduction goals, like the goal to be 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.  Although voluntary measures are politically more acceptable, Changing the Game allows you to see the progress that can be made toward carbon reduction goals when climate policies are mandatory – and if municipalization were to become a reality.

In the late-afternoon of day two of my journey, I bused to Central Copenhagen to meet with energy consultant Julia F. Chozas, an expert in offshore wind and wave energy and a Changing the Game pro.  In an old brick building, several floors up, I watched Chozas setup the Legos-based game, alongside water, juice, biscuits and a bowl of pears to get us through the potentially three-hour-plus game.

Chozas built towers from Legos of various colors.  In the Game, each of the four towers represents one of the energy consumption sectors: heat, industry, transportation and electricity.  The nine different colors indicate different energy sources: a black Lego signifies coal, a yellow one signifies solar energy, and a brown one represents natural gas.  A tower’s height shows the total energy use of that sector.

Created in 2009 for COP15 — the 15th annual Conference of Parties organized for assessing international progress in dealing with climate change — Changing the Game has four versions for different regions in Europe: North, South, East and West.  Chozas assembled the version for Northern Europe that includes Denmark.  The height of the towers showed the total expected energy use in each sector for Northern Europe in 2030, according to a “business as usual” (BAU) scenario.

When six of Chozas’ colleagues joined us to play Changing the Game, the job was to agree upon our ideal energy scenario for the region for 2030 – a different scenario than the one predicted under the BAU circumstances.

From a student in sustainable biotechnology, to a post-doc researcher studying anaerobic digestion and wastewater biological treatment, the group was comprised of well-educated individuals with their sights set on a 2030 energy portfolio that includes fewer fossil fuels and more clean energy sources – not so different from Boulder.

“It’s called the Game because we have in our hands the opportunity to change the direction of how our energy is supplied,” Chozas said.

The first task was to set targets for Northern Europe’s 2030 energy system, taking carbon emissions and other negative impacts of energy combustion into account, like local air pollution and visual impact.

I recommended 30 percent renewables by 2030, but to the group this seemed low. Even Jorge Ramirez, an engineer for National Oilwell Varco Denmark, recommended that we “at least go for 40.”  The consensus was to be ambitious and radical, but also realistic, so we settled on a target goal of 50 percent renewables by 2030.

Then we set a target for reducing total energy consumption.  Each Lego block corresponded to a certain amount of energy.  Each fuel block, such as coal and oil, represented 125 Peta Joules (PJ) of energy used per year — enough energy to power more than 3 million homes for a year.  Each electricity block, such as hydro and solar, equaled 17.5 Terawatt-hours, or the amount of electricity produced when 125 PJ of energy is used to fuel a power plant that runs at 50 percent efficiency.

We set a goal of reducing consumption by 17 blocks from the BAU scenario (2,125 PJ of energy) — enough energy to power more than 63 million homes for a year.

The width of each block corresponds to the CO2 emissions of the fuel.  The wider the block, the more associated CO2; for example, since coal is about 50 percent as carbon-intensive as natural gas, the coal Lego is 2×10”, as compared to the 2×6” natural gas block.  Since you can’t reduce a Lego block to 0×0, the renewable energy blocks are the smallest at 2×4”, but still assumed to be carbon neutral.

For Northern Europe the expected CO2 emissions per capita under a BAU scenario is 8.4 metric tons.  We set our per capita emissions goal to 5 tons.  In the U.S., it’s expected that the annual emissions per capita will be more than 12 metric tons by 2030.

The Game lets you use “change cards” to alter the 2030 BAU scenario.  Each change card includes a shift in technology or behavior (which could be seen in the real world as a policy change), like reducing vehicle miles or increasing energy efficiency.  Each time a change card is implemented, the appropriate sector tower is changed, allowing you to visualize the modification.  A savings – or more often, a cost – is associated with each change.  For instance, increasing energy efficiency could save on fuel costs, but requiring more electric vehicles necessitates spending.

“This is not for free,” Chozas explained.  In the Game, you can only work with the expected 2030 energy efficiency budget for Northern Europe.

As we read them aloud, each card required careful consideration – from its cost, to its contribution to our 2030 goals, to its feasibility from a social and political perspective.

“Commuting is a necessary transport between workplace and home,” I said, reading a change card. “Living closer to your work, or working more from home, reduces the need for transport, and thus energy consumption.”

I added that it was also cheap, putting my support behind the card, and imagined that many Boulderites would also be in favor of this “work where you live” change card.

“I think in this one, it’s important to consider whether it’s feasible or not,” said Isabel Lucas Manzano, who works on quality assurance of pharmaceuticals for the United Nations Population Fund.  “I don’t know, I guess it depends on what you consider commuting.  If you take into account, people taking planes and stuff.”

“I think commuting is more of an everyday thing,” said Anna Burniol, a student in sustainable biotechnology at Aalborg University Copenhagen.

Another point of contention was “car-free Sundays,” reducing oil consumption with no costs involved.

“I say we force people to do it,” said Alexander Ebuart, who works on water projects for UNOPS, an organization that provides sustainable project services.

“But is it something to force on people?” Burniol asked.

“Yeah, of course, you force people,” Ebuart said.

“Not on Sundays, I think that’s important to consider,” Manzano said.

“Not on Sundays, I think it’s stupid to do it on Sundays.  But, any other day, because on Sunday, you would maybe need the car,” Ebuart added.

Burniol stood behind her view that it shouldn’t be compulsory, pointing out that there might be exceptions where people need to use their car on a Sunday.

“I mean, you would not say, ‘do not use the car at all,’ right?” Manzano added.

“But, what exceptions can you see, Anna?  You said that there might be some exceptions,” said Albert Grau-Ivern, project manager for the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk.

“Well, no, I mean I just like to go places on Sunday, and it’s much better to go by car, because by train it takes me six hours,” Burniol said. “And I’m not using the car during the week.”

The entire time, I couldn’t help but think that this conversation would have never happened in the U.S.— even Boulder.  Although this policy change reduces energy at no cost, it wouldn’t fly in a town where even the most sustainably-minded take their Subaru (or SUV) to the trailhead on a Sunday.

We took nearly an hour to go through the change cards, a real-world example of a group that may agree on certain broad goals – like 50 percent renewables – but disagrees on how to reach them.

During the first half hour, we carefully considered each change, qualifying each card as a “yes,” “no” or “maybe.”  By the latter part of the hour, we went through the cards quickly, showing how even in this deliberate experiment, emotions – from patience to fatigue – affect the decision-making process.

Jet-lagged and under-slept on my first night in this foreign city, I was ready to go along with the consensus … and wondered if any international policy makers flying in for COP15 had felt the same.

But fatigue aside, the Game wasn’t over.  The next hour required not only deciding on policy changes, but also understanding the complexity of the electricity system.

Electricity consumption accounts for 59.6 percent of the city of Boulder’s energy consumption in 2010, according to City’s 2010/2011 Climate Action Plan Progress Report.  If Boulder were to increase electricity efficiency and source the majority of its electricity from renewables, the city would be more than half way toward its 2050 goal.

Currently Boulder’s electricity is supplied through Xcel, with more than 80 percent of its energy from fossil fuels – 60 percent coal and 22 percent natural gas – and just over 18 percent of its energy from renewables, mostly wind with a small amount of solar and hydropower.  But if Boulder were to municipalize, would it be able to make an immediate leap to 100 percent renewables?  In Changing the Game, the rules for making modifications to the electricity sector show some of the realistic technological constraints to rapidly increasing the amount of electricity from sustainable sources.

Changes to the electricity consumption tower require more attention for two key reasons: electricity production always has to meet consumption, and electricity demand varies throughout the day and week.  Producing too little or too much electricity results in a collapse of the system, or a blackout.  Since it’s too expensive and inefficient to build batteries to store electricity, it isn’t stored on a large-scale.  To meet the variable demand, electricity must come from a mix of flexible and inflexible sources.

Wind, solar and nuclear are considered inflexible, or uncontrollable sources of electricity: you can’t control when the wind is blowing or when the sun is shining, and it takes a long time to shut down a nuclear power plant.

“If there’s a football match, and then suddenly everyone goes to the TV, you just give the order, and the guys in the control room say, ‘ok, starting,’” Chozas said, explaining when a flexible electricity source might be needed.

To meet peak demand – or demand that only occurs during certain parts of the day, like when lots of people turn on the electric stove or watch TV – only a flexible electricity source can respond, since it can easily be turned up and down.  But to meet base load demand – power demand that is continuous throughout the year – both flexible and inflexible sources of electricity can be used.

So as more inflexible sources of electricity are increased, flexible power plants need to increase in tandem.  The electricity production tower in the Game is assembled to reflect both base load and peak load demand, so that the changes made to the system reflect reality — an aspect that often goes unrecognized when citizens, policy-makers and others advocate for more renewables.

In the Game, each time an uncontrollable electricity block is added, such as wind or solar, a flexible production block must be added as well.  This makes it nearly impossible to have an unrealistic electricity scenario at the end of the Game, like100 percent wind.  But in the Game, biomass and hydropower (a source that is sometimes not considered as part of renewable portfolios because of its environmental impact) can serve as flexible, base-load electricity production, backing up another renewable source.

Using capacity cards, we made changes to the electricity sector.  The capacity cards include the costs, as well as the advantages and drawbacks of each technology.

“Ok, let’s try to put all the wind that we can, no?” Burniol said.  “And, wind is pretty cheap, isn’t it?”

Not as cheap as it needed to be. We manipulated the electricity system to include as many renewables as possible, using flexible hydro for peak capacity and using wind power backed by flexible biomass to meet base-load demand.  But we quickly realized that given budget constraints, it was impossible to make a 100 percent renewable energy electricity tower.  And, there was a general consensus among the group not to use nuclear, although a carbon-free source of electricity.

“What do you do with the waste?  There’s no alternative for the waste,” Burniol said, arguing against nuclear energy. “It’s just something that you dispose, and it will be there forever, and ever and ever.”

This conversation too, would likely sound different in the U.S. Unlike many countries in Europe that are phasing out nuclear, including Germany with its goal of eliminating nuclear by 2022, many in the U.S. believe that to make the transition to a carbon-free economy, nuclear has to be part of the picture.  Although nuclear energy is free of carbon, the U.S. has yet to agree on a site for nuclear waste disposal, a multibillion dollar cost to taxpayers.

In total, we reduced the energy consumption scenario for North Europe below the BAU scenario by 23 Lego blocks – more than three times the total energy consumption of Denmark.  Through a combination of lowering fossil fuel use in all four sectors, we reached a 48 percent renewable energy scenario, coming close to our 50 percent goal.

But because the consumption of oil and gas remained high, represented by 46 blocks – enough energy to power more than seven times the energy consumption of Denmark – our CO2 emissions per capita were only 8.1 metric tons per capita, only .3 metric tons less than the expected 8.4 metric tons under a BAU scenario for 2030.  By the time all of the changes were implemented, we had also created a £2 billion budget deficit.

“I think it’s a very good tool to understand the whole system.  Our energy consumption is huge, and we need to cover a lot of areas,” Chozas said.

I had begun the Game with some idea of what it would take to transition from a largely fossil fuel based energy system to one of renewables, as a graduate student studying these issues at CU Boulder.  But after an exhausting three-hour attempt to envision the transition using just cards and Legos, I realized just how much it will take to change business-as-usual energy scenarios – even in a place like Boulder.

Busing back to my hotel room close to 11 p.m., I couldn’t help but think that perhaps with more time, or with slightly different changes to the game, our 2030 scenario could have been different, with a smaller deficit and fewer carbon emissions.  Not to mention that in the real world, there’s always the possibility that existing and new renewable technologies will take off in ways that we can’t predict – changing the game while we play it.