Energy Prize

Mountain towns vie for $5 million prize for residential energy efficiency

by Allen Best

Who doesn’t like a contest—and a reward if you win? That’s the premise underlying Georgetown University’s Energy Prize, which promises $5 million to the community that can best produce a program to reduce per capita energy consumed from local natural gas and electrical utilities.

The larger goal of the award, as explained by a Forbes contributor, is to “create a meaningful inflection point with respect to the way communities think about and use energy.” While energy efficiency is cost effective, with retrofits often yielding returns of 25 percent or more, few people take action to make those investments.

Park City/Summit County, Aspen, and Jackson Hole are among the 52 communities in the United States in the competition, which was open to cities of between 5,000 and 250,000 population.

Others in the contest include Fort Collins, Colo., Madison, Wis., and Walla Walla, Wash.

Phil Cameron, director of Energy Conservation Works, in Jackson Hole, sees the competition as a useful organizing tool. “It is basically an affirmation of everything that has been done to date between the town, (Teton) County, and Lower Valley Energy (the electrical cooperative),” he says. “And it gives us something on which to focus our efforts and to really bring the entire community in this efficiency and conservation mindset.”

Cameron also sees the contest as energizing Jackson.

“Mountain towns have a great conservation and environmental ethic, and they also tend to be competitive. This is an opportunity to combine those things, not just for the good of the individual communities, but all the communities in the contest.”

The Energy Prize contest was the brainchild of Georgetown University physicist Francis Slakey. He thought $5 million would be enough to capture attention. He further thought that he might actually spur productive work by focusing on local government, a level of government that still functions reasonably well.

The contest involves tracking of energy use in the residential and governmental sectors for 2015 and 2016. Commercial buildings were excluded because there are too many variables that could create an uneven playing field.

In Park City, Matt Abbott of Summit Community Power Works thinks it’s a great opportunity to focus attention.

“Like Jackson and Aspen, we have a lot of big homes with heat loss and a great deal of external heating,” he said. The primary argument for energy efficiency will be about saving money.

Story from Aspen

Aspen has already done a great deal to wring out improved energy efficiencies in its government buildings. Two megawatt hours of reduced demand have already been achieved in the residential sector, representing a 2 to 3 percent savings, says Jeff Rice, utilities energy efficiency manager. He hopes for more as the city utility, which supplies roughly two-thirds of electricity to city residents, works with Holy Cross Energy, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, and other partners.

“We can hone in on this and rally our partners and dangle this massive $5 million carrot out there,” he said of the prize money.

Aspen has  done much to squeeze energy demands from its residential housing, but  Georgetown University's Energy Prize  provides impetus for reinspecting its programs.   Photo/Allen Best

Aspen has done much to squeeze energy demands from its residential housing, but Georgetown University’s Energy Prize provides impetus for reinspecting its programs. Photo/Allen Best

While energy efficiency in the abstract is easy, and the chief apostle of efficiency, Amory Lovins, has made a career out of preaching the virtues, getting it done is hard work, says Rice.

Ryland French, an energy efficiency intern for the Aspen utility, sees the contest as an opportunity to “just take a closer look at the programs we have had that have been successful and ask, ‘What can we do to make them more successful?’ Or, ‘What have we been missing?’”

And in Jackson

In Jackson, Mayor Mark Barron and public works director Larry Pardee were part of a delegation that had traveled to Aspen’s Canary Initiative conference in 2006. They returned to Wyoming full of fervor. In 2008, Jackson and Teton County set a goal of a 10 percent reduction by 2010 for the two governments.

The two governments met that goal, but it was harder than they thought.

Pardee has also figured out ways to get renewable energy at many locations, and just this week got council approval for more solar panels at the wastewater treatment plant. The plant will soon have 800 kilowatts of solar capacity. “Technology in photovoltaic panels is improving quickly,” he says.

Barron will soon be leaving office, but he continues to bug Pardee about the next set of goals.

Jackson’s next set of goals for government buildings is to gain 40 percent of efficiency on a BTU per square foot basis by 2020 as compared to the 2006 baseline. The six other goals involve targets for transportation, water, and renewables.

“It’s been kind of up and down, but we are moving in the right direction,” Pardee says.

The setting is spectacular, but much of the hosing in Jackson, Wyo., is rather ordinary 1970s construction, built when energy was cheap. Photo/Allen Best

The setting is spectacular, but much of the hosing in Jackson, Wyo., is rather ordinary 1970s construction, built when energy was cheap. Photo/Allen Best

But Jackson has made few inroads in the residential sector. Many homes continue to be heated with cheap hydroelectric power supplied by Bonneville Power. Demand continues to grow, however, and future sources are likely to be mostly fossil fuel based and also more costly.

Can some of this demand be reduced? That’s essentially the goal of the Georgetown contest. The mission, according to the website, is to “tap the imagination, creativity, and spirit of competition between communities.” The results are supposed to be not only innovative, but scalable and replicable, so that what works in one place, generally speaking, might have value in another town or city.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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