Conservation Currents | Tacoma Goes Green

In this feature from Mountaineer magazine, learn about how our members and volunteers are helping reduce our carbon footprint at the Tacoma Program Center.
Conor Marshall Conor Marshall
April 18, 2023
Conservation Currents | Tacoma Goes Green
Tacoma Program Center exterior. Photo by Troy Mason.

Like most major Mountaineers achievements, reducing the carbon footprint of our Tacoma Program Center (TPC) became a reality thanks to the passion and drive of our volunteers.

"Every time I looked at the gas meter outside the Tacoma Program Center, I cringed,” said Charlie Michel, Mountaineers leader, volunteer, donor, and Carbon Footprint Reduction (CFR) Committee member. “I knew it just wasn’t right to be burning fossil fuels to heat our building."

Thanks to the tireless efforts of leaders like Charlie, that gas meter is gone. With the addition of the building’s new rooftop solar panels earlier this year, the TPC is now a Net-Zero energy building—it will power our programs and activities without any net carbon emissions. Completion of the Tacoma Net-Zero project is anticipated to eliminate at least 6.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year, an offset equivalent to one year’s worth of emissions produced by 1.5 gas-powered cars.

Getting the TPC to Net-Zero is a recent example of how The Mountaineers is tackling climate change by reducing the energy consumption of our facilities, programs, and activities. This project wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of our CFR Committee and many volunteers and donors throughout our Tacoma community and across The Mountaineers.

Why Tacoma?

Our original Tacoma clubhouse was built by volunteers on land donated by a member in 1956. As Tacoma membership and programming expanded in the early 2000s, the branch needed more space and an upgraded facility to meet increased demand. Thanks to a generous bequest from a long[1]time member and a fundraising drive that raised $150,000 in individual donations, the TPC was rebuilt in 2011 to LEED standards.

Indoor Climbing Wall at the Tacoma Program Center_Photo by Troy Mason, climbing wall at the TPC. Photo by Troy Mason.

The rebuilding effort was led by former Tacoma Branch Chair and past Board President Geoff Lawrence, who took on the role of project manager with the belief that Mountaineers facilities should embody our conservation ethic. “The new building was designed as eco-friendly and energy-efficient as we could afford at the time,” said Geoff. “There was always discussion within the branch membership about how to embody Leave No Trace throughout our programs and initiatives. A lot has changed in the world of carbon footprint reduction in the last 10 years, and we came to realize we could do more to model those values.”

The Tacoma Net-Zero project reduces The Mountaineers impact on the planet and will decrease infrastructure costs and save an estimated $3,000 on utilities per year, allowing us to invest in future renewable energy projects.

Volunteer-led, staff-supported

In 2017, The Mountaineers committed to addressing the climate crisis by reducing our carbon footprint in our Vision 2022 strategic plan. Former Board Member and Tacoma Branch Chair Jim Burke led efforts to include and prioritize climate change and carbon footprint reduction. “Climate change kept rising to the top during those strategic planning listening sessions with our Tacoma membership,” Jim shared. “To make this a priority for The Mountaineers, I knew we needed to bake it into our strategic plan moving forward.”

Since the beginning, Jim, Charlie, and Geoff have been central to The Mountaineers efforts to address climate change. In 2019 Jim and Charlie urged staff to create the Carbon Footprint Reduction Committee, where staff and members could collaboratively envision and execute the critical work of reducing The Mountaineers carbon footprint and elevate the issue of climate change.

Reducing the carbon footprint of Mountaineers buildings gained momentum in 2018 when Charlie made a large philanthropic donation, which was matched by our Board of Directors, to install solar panels at the Seattle Program Center (SPC). After successful completion of that project in 2019, Charlie made a similar commitment to fund solar installation at the TPC—a critical piece to reaching Net-Zero in Tacoma. Throughout each phase of the project, volunteers made generous gifts of time, money, and expertise to enable our Net-Zero vision.

Phase I: LED lighting

Volunteers kicked off the project in 2020 by transitioning the TPC’s lighting to energy-efficient LEDs. Fortuitously, several Tacoma Mountaineers members—including Charlie Michel, Tom Carroll, Bruce Durham, and Dave Schultz—have engineering and electrician backgrounds and were instrumental in planning and executing the lighting project. The old lighting was so dark that Tacoma Program Manager Sarah Holt had to bring additional halogens to light the climbing wall while instructing. The new lighting system saves energy, lowers operating and maintenance costs, and shines brighter on the programs and activities that bring the TPC to life.

Phase II: Energy-efficient heating and cooling

In 2021, gas-powered furnaces and appliances were replaced with energy-efficient electric versions to reduce the building’s fossil fuel reliance. Heat and hot water now run on electricity from Tacoma Power through heat pumps, using less than half the electricity required by traditional baseboards or electric furnaces. With a rebate from Tacoma Power, we were also able to replace the old refrigerator. These projects were made possible by an ambitious $31,000 fundraising campaign and a generous donation by Charlie to cover half the costs of phase II.

Phase III: Rooftop solar

To help fund the project’s final phase, The Mountaineers sought a $50,000 grant from Tacoma Power’s Evergreen Options (EVO), a public utilities program that allows Tacoma Power customers to invest in renewable energy for as little as $3 a month and vote on annual grant applications.

Heat pump air handlers for water heater at Tacoma Program Center. Photo by Geoff Lawrence..jpgHeat pump air handlers for the water heater at the TPC. Photo by Geoff Lawrence.

This process resulted in a unique community engagement opportunity for The Mountaineers. After an unsuccessful attempt in 2020 to secure EVO funding, volunteers recruited Mountaineers members living in the Tacoma Power service area to join the EVO program and vote for our 2021 application. Our efforts paid off, and we secured a 2021 Evergreen Options grant award. Combined with another substantial gift from Charlie and additional donations from our community, securing this grant made rooftop solar and achieving Net-Zero status for the TPC possible.

“What we accomplish together at The Mountaineers is always because of the generosity of our volunteers and donors, recreationists with a deep love for our special outdoor places,” said CEO Tom Vogl. “Completion of the Tacoma Program Center Net-Zero Project is a great example of how volunteers and donors continue to lead us to adventure with purpose in new ways.”

Continuing to reduce our carbon footprint

The TPC solar panel installation project will likely qualify for a significant rebate thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act. Additional savings will help fund future Net-Zero projects for the SPC. Achieving Net-Zero in Seattle will save an estimated 7,260 therms of natural gas and 85,000 pounds of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere a year. That’s equal to taking eight gas-powered cars off the road each year.

Thanks to our volunteers, we’ve also retrofitted all lighting in the SPC by replacing over 500 light bulbs with energy-efficient LEDs, adding timers and occupancy sensors, and installing rooftop solar panels. Replacing gas-fired furnaces with energy-efficient heat pumps tops our wish list of future SPC energy-reduction projects.

Reaching our goal of Net-Zero will not be possible without continued philanthropic support from our members. You can support this important work by making a gift to our Carbon Footprint Reduction Fund at By making carbon footprint reduction a part of your Mountaineers journey, we can continue to build a community where recreationists shape a better climate future.

This article originally appeared in our spring 2023 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive