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Aspen think tank going mainstream

Scott Condon
Vail, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times file photoThe Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass is finding its once radical causes, such as solar power and other alternative energy sources, are becoming mainstream issues.
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SNOWMASS ” For most of its 25 years, the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass has plugged away as sort of a fanatical fringe group preaching a gospel of energy efficiency and independence from oil.

Now the causes the nonprofit organization has worked so hard to promote have gone mainstream as global warming and alternative fuel sources seep into world consciousness.

“It’s kind of fun to ride the wave for a change,” executive director Marty Pickett said.

It’s also challenging. The organization must find ways to remain a cutting edge leader on its core issues, now that so many other organizations are flocking to the causes, Pickett said. The organization faces those challenges as it celebrates its 25th anniversary. Events will take place in Basalt and Aspen during August to mark the milestone.

The organization hired a new chief executive officer, Michael Potts, in March to lead it into an expanded role. That allows co-founder and former CEO Amory Lovins to concentrate on his role as chief scientist.

The institute’s core mission remains the same. It touts itself as a “think-and-do tank” that works in multiple ways with individuals and organizations “to help them use energy and resources more efficiently while being ever-better stewards of the environment.”

The institute’s work is focused in three areas. One is the Built Environment team. It works on energy efficient building and design with clients such as national housing developers.

The breakthrough design team focuses on transportation initiatives. In an exciting new project, Pickett said, the institute has formed a consortium with two major investors and “two tier-one automotive suppliers to design a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.”

The energy and resources team focuses on working with utility companies. Pickett said the prospect of taking on more work in those areas is both exciting and overwhelming.

The organization is already short-staffed and everyone is “working flat out,” she said.

But, as the cliche says, being too busy is better than the alternative. “It’s a good challenge to have,” she said.

Maintaining a leadership role will also require financial and staffing growth, Pickett said. RMI’s operating budget has jumped from just under $2 million in 1998 to a projected $10 million for its coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The organization is beefing up to meet demands. It typically has around 75 full-time employees, including 14 fellows and interns, and plans to add another dozen. At any given time, there are between one and five part-time employees and between one and five volunteers.

About 60 percent of the employees are at the institute’s Boulder office. The remainder work at the old Windstar campus in Snowmass Creek Valley.

The institute faces persistent whisperings that it is in tough financial shape. Pickett said that arose when some neighbors objected to its relocating to Windstar and expanding there. She said the rumors couldn’t be further from the truth.


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