The splendor of Aspen’s iconic mountains have always lured tourists, skiers and artists to Aspen. But the city also earns accolades for innovative organizations and visionaries who are helping to wean America and the world from planet-warming fossil fuels to a cleaner, more sustainable future. Over recent decades, certain visionaries have turned Aspen into one of the nation’s greenest cities.
Aspen is the third municipality in the United States to draw all its electricity from renewable energy sources, a target the city reached in 2015 while still allowing residents to pay less for clean electricity than national and state average rates.
“I couldn’t be prouder that we’re at the forefront of climate action, with programs aimed specifically at reducing our carbon footprint,” says David Hornbacher, director of utilities and environmental initiatives for the city.
How can a city known for its excess tout itself as a model for green living? Four local organizations in particular have committed to making it happen—the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, the Aspen Skiing Company, the American Renewable Energy Institute and the Rocky Mountain Institute. Here’s a look at Aspen’s most innovative environmental players.
American Renewable Energy Institute
Big ideas become reality in the Aspen area largely because people are willing to shake hands across the political aisle to make things happen, according to Chip Comins, founder and CEO of AREI. The Aspen nonprofit organization is devoted to promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency. Its flagship event, the American Renewable Energy Day Summit (known as AREDAY), is a multiday annual event held in Snowmass Village that draws the likes of Ted Turner and T. Boone Pickens, and spawns networking, investments and alliances in clean-energy initiatives, like the Clean Tax Cuts, which were introduced to the world at the 2016 AREDAY Summit by the Grace Richardson Foundation. “We’re not red; we’re not blue; but we’re green—as in the color of trees and the color of money,” says Comins.
Community Office for Resource Efficiency
Perhaps one of the most visible of the climate pioneers and a key engine behind the city’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint is CORE, a nonprofit organization that, under the leadership of Executive Director Mona Newton, promotes renewable energy, energy efficiency and green building in the Roaring Fork Valley. Founded in 1994, CORE’s first director was Randy Udall, an exuberant energy analyst and member of the Udall political family in the American West.
Before his death in 2013, Udall helped forge politically unlikely alliances that have steered the Roaring Fork Valley toward a low-carbon economy. One of his legacies is a unique funding program in the City of Aspen and Pitkin County building departments called the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program. Under REMP, new homeowners in the City of Aspen and Pitkin County must pay an in-lieu fee if they don’t install sufficient renewable energy and energy-efficiency systems. Owners of homes larger than 5,000 square feet, equipped with energy-guzzling luxuries such as snowmelt driveways, pay a fee of at least $5,000. That fee becomes part of a REMP fund, which is used to issue grants and rebates to help residents and businesses use energy
In 2016 alone, CORE awarded $626,684 in grants to two dozen local organizations, including a bike-share program, Habitat for Humanity and a public school, to implement energy-efficiency retrofits and renewable energy systems, such as solar photovoltaic arrays. CORE anticipated that its investments in local economic development would offset 4.39 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions in 2016. The REMP model has been replicated in places as far away as Martha’s Vineyard. “Before REMP, there weren’t really any programs like this,” says Marty Treadway, energy smart program manager at CORE. “It was one of the first in the country to provide solar rebates.”
Aspen Skiing Company
“For a long time, people in the industry looked at us as hippies and hoped we’d shut up and go away,” says Matt Jones, chief financial officer for Aspen Skiing Company, which is known for its longstanding commitment to the environment. “This is a conservative industry, and many said that calling attention to climate change would be detrimental to the industry.” But now, other ski resorts have followed the company’s lead. They know that climate change could kill their industry.
SkiCo’s biggest climate-friendly investment came in 2012, when it forked out $5.5 million as a partner in a new methane-fired power plant. The facility captures vented methane from Oxbow Mining LLC’s Elk Creek coal mine in Somerset, Colo., southwest of Aspen. The methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide, gets converted to electricity. SkiCo makes money through the sale of electrons to the Holy Cross Energy rural electric cooperative. Jones says that SkiCo has enjoyed a 12 percent return on its investment in the project. “Unless it makes economic sense, we don’t do it,” he says.
Jones credits Udall, the energy analyst who co-founded CORE, for suggesting the novel idea of turning noxious methane into clean electricity. Udall introduced him and other SkiCo officials to the owner of the Oxbow coal mine, Bill Koch (of the conservative, climate change-denying billionaire Koch brothers), and to an oil and gas developer named Tom Vessels. Together, they made the project happen.
For SkiCo, one of the first companies in the ski industry to set targets for slashing its own carbon dioxide emissions, doing good for the planet is good for business. “A lot of young people want to work at a place that cares about the environment. We recruit people who are motivated and passionate,” says Jones.
Rocky Mountain Institute
Physicist Amory Lovins’ passion for energy efficiency led him to found the Rocky Mountain Institute “think-and-do tank” in 1982.
RMI’s Basalt headquarters, called the Innovation Center, is an international model for green building design. The center’s net-energy-positive features include extensive natural lighting, innovative building materials that maintain constant indoor temperature and automated windows that eliminate the need for a centralized heating or cooling system. The appliances even turn off automatically afterhours, slashing phantom electricity loss.
“We wanted a place that embodied what we’ve done all these years,” says Marty Pickett, RMI’s managing director and general counsel. The center is designed to showcase practical solutions not bank-breaking whiz-bang technology. “One of our mantras is: ‘It needs to makes sense and make money,’” says Pickett. Over the next 10 years, RMI expects the LEED Platinum building to pay back $2.3 million (of the total $15 million price tag), thanks to lower energy and maintenance costs, as well as boosted worker productivity.
In 2013, RMI brought its principles and practices to China through a program called Reinventing Fire China. China consumes more energy and emits more greenhouse gases than any other nation. The RMI team, partnering with the Energy Research Institute in China and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., has helped inform China’s international climate negotiations and particularly its internal roadmap for slashing greenhouse gas emissions.
“In China, no question, climate change is an issue,” says Jon Creyts, managing director of RMI’s China program. “As air quality got worse, the country had to find an alternative energy pathway.”
A message implicit in the ideals and activities of these climate pioneers is that doing good for the environment can also boost the bottom line of businesses
“We’re really thinking about how we can accomplish our goals reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also ensure that rural Colorado continues to thrive economically,” says Matt Hamilton, Aspen Skiing Company’s sustainability director. “Those are the things that keep us up at night.”