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Thinking globally, acting locally to cut energy demand

Allen Best

Tom Luby gets a little bit grumpy when the subject turns to building homes and other structures that are energy efficient.”We’re still building the same old stuff we’ve been building since the 1940s,”says Luby, a home-builder who works out of Eagle. Oh yes, he adds, materials are better – better windows, better foam, and more efficient boilers. Because of them, homes use fewer fossil fuels. But the building designs have not improved, and they won’t improve until there is a public demand.Homes like those in Vail and the Eagle Valley are, ultimately, a major part of the story in global warming. The United States, with only 4 percent of the population, is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s annual emissions of greenhouse gases. A significant portion of the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal, is done for use in homes. Luby wants more initiative from architects and builders. “Unless the homeowner himself takes an active interest in it and tells the architect he wants an energy efficient house, it doesn’t get done,” he says. “Builders as a whole don’t give a hoot. We’ll go drilling the national artic refuge before we do these easy things.”Kristin Lester, program coordinator for the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability, a group that conducts monthly meetings on topics related to green building techniques, is somewhat more charitable. There are some builders, most notably RA Nelson and Associates, interested in energy efficient building. But, she conceded, energy efficient building is “slow to take off” in Vail and the Eagle Valley.A sideways glanceHow different from the Vail Valley’s sibling, Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. There, political leaders have been motivated by “clean” energy for almost 20 years. Today, energy efficient homes are mandated in Aspen and Pitkin County in a program that has drawn attention from across the country.Aspen embarked on the road to “clean” energy in 1985 by dusting off some old ideas. The city and Pitkin County together installed a hydroelectric plant in the dam at Ruedi Reservoir.Then, in 1987, the city installed a new hydroelectric plant in Maroon Creek. The town government is also a utility, delivering water and electricity to residents.With purchases of blocks of wind power, 57 percent of Aspen’s electricity now comes from wind or hydro. A change now under way will push that to 80 percent.Gobal warming at the outset was not a primary motivating force. Instead, leaders in Aspen realized the connection between their activities as consumers of electricity and the power plants that belched emissions in Nebraska, Craig and in the Four Corners and wanted to get their hands a little cleaner.In 1996, Aspen and Pitkin County took this idea of “think globally, act locally” even further. A building code was adopted that establishes thresholds for home energy consumption. Want a heated driveway? A heated outdoor swimming pool? Fine, but to get it you have to do everything else – super-efficient windows, solar panels, and everything else. The essential idea is that homes should live within energy budgets.In 2000, the city and county pushed the idea of limits one step further in what has been called a Robin Hood program. This broader idea adds size thresholds. Above 5,000 square foot and a home must have a hot-water solar panel – or contribute $5,000 into a fund. At 10,000 square feet it’s two hot-water solar panels – or $10,000 into a community fund.That pay-in-lieu option is why it’s called a Robin Hood program, and the fund now has $1 million. It has been used to pay for a small hydroelectric project plant near Basalt to supply the needs of several homes. As well, several community buildings such as a recreation center have been outfitted with energy-efficiency designs by sing funds form this fund.Administering the money, with oversight from Aspen City Council members and Pitkin County commissioners, is a non-profit group called Community Office for Resource Efficiency. Directed by Randy Udall, the office has worked during the past 10 years to encourage use of solar power. Udall also has been a key figure in promoting demand for wind-generated power.A lofty goalAmong the major buyers for wind-generated power has been the Aspen Skiing Co. The ski company this week announced that it is upping its annual purchase of wind power, previously budgeted for $11,000, to $25,000 annually. This fits in with the company’s broader goal of reducing its responsibility for emissions of greenhouse gases by 10 percent by the year 2010. To achieve that, says Pat O’Donnell, chief executive officer of the company, means getting work done now. “There is no slacking,” he says. “You can’t cram for the exam in the last year or two.”O’Donnell bought into this goal about five years ago, but to implement it he had to persuade the Crown family, which owns Aspen. Not much persuading was necessary, he says, even if this means less profit. “They’re fully on board with this.”For example, in replacing the aging mid-mountain restaurant called Sundeck several years ago, the company adopted green building policies. Almost everything was recycled, and the new building was made energy efficient. These extra steps added about 3 percent, or $450,000, to the $15 million cost.O’Donnell concedes the struggle between environmental and economical goals. For example, at Snowmass Village, Aspen is partnering with Intrawest on a major real estate development of 650 condominiums called Base Village. Adopting all green building practices cost more than what Aspen and Intrawest thought they could absorb, but the project now being planned would exceed energy efficiency standards for Snowmass by 30 percent.Consideration of greenhouse gases is built into the process when considering capital projects at the Aspen Skiing Co. Environmental costs and benefits are treated equally with economic cost and benefits in all capital improvement proposals. The process, says O’Donnell, spawns more creative – such as questioning why the company wasn’t harnessing the power of the streams running down the side of the ski mountain.That sort of thinking led to creation of a microhydro power plant at Snowmass. Using existing snowmaking infastructure, the power of spring runoff will be harnessed to make electricity. Cost was $150,000 (and $50,000 in grants), with a payback expected in seven years. The plant was unveiled in July.”It warms my heart when they come in with that kind of thinking, which maybe a decade ago they wouldn’t have had,” says O’Donnell.Answer is blowingGlenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy, the largest electrical supplier for the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys, has also been a national leader in alternative energy. As a rural cooperative, meaning that consumers are the owners, Holy Cross is driven by community wishes as expressed by elected board members. Board members from the Eagle Valley are George Lamb, Bob Maine and George Schaeffer.One of the guiding considerations is the environment, explains Bob Gardner, Holy Cross spokesman. As such, in 1998 the cooperative began asking consumers if they wanted to buy blocks of wind-generated power, even if it cost a little more. The biggest consumers are the Aspen Skiing Co., Vail Resorts and Pitkin County. A majority of the 2,600 purchasers of wind-powered electricity are in Pitkin County.Still, coal-generation accounts for 64 percent of the electricity in Holy Cross’s portfolio, compared to 7.5 percent for renewable energy. A goal of 20 percent has been set by the cooperative for the year 2015.Meanwhile, Vail Resorts has quietly been taking significant steps during the past several years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That is not necessarily the goal. Saving money is. But in the end, they often are the same.For example, this year the company has changed three drives for chairlifts with newer models that use less electricity. Luke Cartin, the company’s environmental coordinator at Vail, has likewise worked on replacing snowmaking drives. “I makes great business sense for us,” he says.The company also has been retrofitting lighting fixtures, an effort that yielded it major recognition this year in the ski industry. The company also takes pride in its recycling program, as well as its use of recycled materials. For example, recycled tires are used in the flooring at Mid-Vail. Progress is measured in other small ways, such as a bicycle-loan program to workers needing to run errands in Vail. More flashy is a new solar-powered trash compactor.Also afoot are plans to erect wind turbines atop four 100-foot towers on Vail Mountain. The cost is projected at $1.5 million. Bill Jensen, chief operating officer for Vail Mountain, estimated the project will be done in three to five years. It must first get U.S. Forest Service approval.Base developmentStill unclear is what priority energy efficiency will be in the $1 billion in redevelopment planned in the town of Vail. Vail town officials several years ago examined Aspen’s regulations that mandate improved energy efficiency, and chose not to mimic them.In discussing a planned town convention center, environmental goals have been discussed as important. Whether this will ultimately mean the building becomes an icon of energy efficiency, as well as the architectural monument as some people hope, remains to be seen.


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