Bucking for the $5 million Georgetown University Energy Prize


Georgetown PrizeMountain towns among semi-finalists in $5 million energy-efficiency contest 

by Allen Best

The clock is now ticking in the Georgetown University Energy Prize. The 50 finalists from across the United States in 2015 and 2016 must deploy strategies that use energy more efficiently. The carrot for their efforts is $5 million in prize money.

The mountain communities of Aspen, Colo., and Jackson, Wyo., along with Bend, Ore., and Park City/Summit County in Utah are among the finalists.

In Colorado, the Front Range communities of Brighton and Fort Collins also made the cut.

“This is a marathon, and we have a lot road ahead of us, but we are excited to see what works and how we can tap into our community’s competitive spirit,” said Matt Abbott, environmental project manager for Park City. The program there is called Summit Community Power Works.

“I’m excited and feel like we are off to a great start, especially with our three school districts,” added Abbott. “We are starting simple, with LEDs, and working our way up to smart controls, infrastructure, and eventually, renewables.”

The contest was created by Dr. Francis Slakey, a physicist at Georgetown University and co-director of the university’s Program on Science in the Public Interest.  He saw the prize money as a way to stir competitive juices that will stimulate innovation but also spark community-wide cooperation among schools, governments, utilities and other groups.

Slakey also makes a point of arguing that the semi-finalists reflect the diversity found within the United States.

“Not only do these communities come from across the map, they represent the nation’s full political, social and economic diversity,” he said. “Some are paying the highest prices for energy, some have the ambition to be carbon net-zero, but all the communities share the goal of transforming America’s energy future.”

The premise of the competition is that local communities have long been the incubators for the practical implementation of innovative approaches to difficult problems. That innovation is already evident.

For example, one community is conducting deep data-mining of energy use. Others are exploring radically unique approaches to behavior change. Many communities are exploring how competition within their own communities can be used to produce further cuts in energy demand.

In Wyoming, Jackson Hole Energy Conservation Works has teamed up with the local electrical cooperative to start distributing 1,000 LED light bulbs to schools and homes in Jackson and Teton County.

But whether Jackson Hole wins is not entirely the point, says Phil Cameron, the director of the group. He says the connections that the program provides in sharing best practices and other resources are also of great value.

“While the prize will be awarded to just one community, every community that participates will benefit,” he says.

In Fort Collins, John Phelan placed the competition in two time frames, with two distinct layers to the aspiration. During 2015 and 2016, he said in a webcast press conference, Fort Collins and other semi-finalists will roll out their efforts improve energy efficiency.

Fort Collins had been thinking about his intently for much of the last decade, most notably through its FortZED program, which seeks to boost renewable energy while decreasing energy demand in an district that aspires to have net zero carbon use.

But that’s only half the issue, added Phelan, the energy service manager for the city’s electrical utility.

“Performing really well gets us into the finals. But once we’re in the finals, the energy savings are a much smaller value, because at that point everybody will have done well,” he explained.

“Then the focus becomes how did we innovate? What are the things we did and how replicable are they? How scalable is that to other communities? What kind of persistence did we see? How did we educate our communities? Those become the primary criteria for the $5 million prize.

“We need to get the energy savings and show the measured results. That is critical. And then we have to show the ways we accomplished that and why this will matter across the country and into the future.”


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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