Sustainable doesn’t mean efficient: Colorado cities see split views in terms of sustainability goals

Sierra Cymes

Water, sunlight and wind help the aspen trees transition into fall while the same elements allow the city of Aspen to “fall” into a new season of sustainability.

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Aspen trees in the fall. (Photo credit: Sierra Cymes)
Aspen trees in the fall. (Photo credit: Sierra Cymes.)

Aspen now uses 100 percent renewable energy, and while this mountain town may seem to be on higher ground compared to Fort Collins in altitude and renewability, there is a more level playing field when it comes to the competition for overall energy efficiency.

The percentage of renewables in Aspen is 53 percent wind, 46 percent hydro-electric and 1 percent landfill gas.

Aspen Utilities and Environmental Initiatives director David Hornbacher says that the renewability achievement was due to an energy mix from multiple sources, a partnership with an energy wholesale supplier as well as work with the National Energy Laboratory that helped push the project to completion.

“It wasn’t a singular strategy,” Hornbacher said. “It was really a holistic approach, and that approach started back in the mid-1980s. It wasn’t a single project that we just went out and bonded for x-million, and now we have to pay that back.”

Carmello Mannino, a global, social and sustainable enterprise MBA student, grew up in the southeast and did not discover sustainable ventures until his sophomore undergraduate year at CSU.

“I lived in this suburb where everybody had sprinklers and they got their lawns sprayed all the time. It was a big city and it was in the southeast where people don’t focus on that stuff,” Mannino said. “And then you come to Colorado and you go to a community like Aspen where everyone’s got a lot of money, and it’s like they have enough money and time to care about these things.”

After being educated on sustainable enterprises as an undergraduate, Mannino worked to educate the public on the sustainability of renewables with the Tennessee Solar Association. He said there are various reasons why people may invest in fossil fuels over renewable technology.

“A lot of people just want the cheap stuff, which is absolutely reasonable,” Mannino said. “You buy something expensive now and you have to wait for that return, whereas you can buy something cheap and then you pay a little bit more each month, but that’s easier to pay than some huge initial investment.”

Having clean sources of energy is only one piece in the puzzle of energy efficiency. Both Aspen and Fort Collins are taking part in the Georgetown University Prize. The competition is giving $5 million to a community judged to be innovative and educative to move toward energy efficiency.

Carbon neutrality is an important factor when it comes to increasing energy efficiency and decreasing environmental impact.

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According to the Fort Collins Climate Action Plan, Fort Collins plans to become carbon-neutral by 2050 through reducing energy use in buildings and transportation, reducing emissions from electricity and reducing waste and eliminating landfill emissions by recycling or composting. 

Energy Utilities manager John Phelan says small steps are needed in order to reach both short-term and long-term targets.

“There isn’t going to be a single silver bullet for any of these solutions — be it in the efficiency realm or in renewable energy — it’s more like silver bee-bees,” Phelan said. “So it’s going to need homeowners to participate in programs, businesses as well as community, solar and utility scale.”

The up-front investment, the risk that technologies may not yet be fully developed or cost-effective and that adding lots of renewable electricity to the grid, could result in instability if not properly managed are factors of long-term goals, according to the Fort Collins Climate Action Plan.

Aspen plans to reduce 80 percent of its baseline 2004 carbon emissions by 2050, according to its climate action plan. This plan for Aspen is named the “Canary Initiative” due to the fact that Aspen has been called “the canary town” in regard to climate change.

“The old-fashioned canary in the mine that was sort of an indicator to the miners where it was unhealthy in the mine, that the air quality was going down and that you needed to get out,” Hornbacher said. “So that’s sort of been the mascot at driving our community response to global warming.”

Collegian News Reporter Sierra Cymes can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @sierra_cymes.