Ski Town Showdown and the Georgetown Energy Prize

When it’s useful to have a competitor and collaborator among ski towns

Aspen and Park City among leaders in energy competition

by Allen Best

With $5 million in prize money on the line, two ski towns in the Rocky Mountains have become neck-and-neck competitors. Aspen was recently ranked 2nd in the nation-wide community energy competition sponsored by Georgetown University while Park City came in 4th among the 50 finalists.

Having Aspen as a rival has been useful, says Matt Abbott, Park City’s environmental project manager. Asked why his city was ranked 4th nationally, he described aggressive efforts but also the advantage of showing progress when starting from scratch. There was no non-profit at Park City to spur efforts before, so that left a lot of low-hanging fruit to be snatched.

Being a small community also is advantage. “There’s a lot of word-of-mouth (advertising),” he says.Ski Town Showdown

“It definitely helps to have Aspen in the running. We’re very competitive with Aspen. It helps to have another horse that we’re familiar with.”

Abbott says he’s on the phone frequently with a counterpart in Aspen, Ashley Perl, director of that city’s Canary Initiative. At the start of the Georgetown Prize competition in 2013, the two towns cooked up a competition that they called the Ski Town Showdown.

Municipal employees recruited to participate had 21 action items to choose from, ranging from home energy use to water conservation and recycling. Park City got 149 employees to participate, reporting changes they’d made, with a result of 936,442 pounds of carbon dioxide reduced, more than twice the reduction in Aspen.

The first competition worked so well that the two towns last year decided to go a second round, this time making a competition specifically about energy efficiency to the general community. Again, Park City won the joust, upending the better-known Aspen.

But the strategy was useful to Aspen, says Ryland French, utilities efficiency specialist. “We are happy to see that challenge from other communities and rally our community around it,” he says.

In this ski town showdown, Aspen used the competition to engage people in the virtues of switching out lighting to LED technology and the value of remote thermostat controls that can allow people to reduce their heat while away from home with an application on a smartphone.

In Park City the list also includes home weatherization, which includes things like attic insulation and heating and ventilating; and adoption of renewables, especially solar.

Normalizing actions

The broader challenge in both communities is to “normalize” actions.

Studies have shown that a technology can be broadly accepted, or normalized, once 15 to 18 percent of people have adopted it, says Abbott.

“If you want a product to become normal in the market, you have to get past the early adopters,” he says. “I think we have crossed the threshold on LED light bulbs.”

Control systems aren’t there yet, though, and home weatherization efforts are far more complicated. “We have to figure out how to help somebody.”

Renewable energy, at the residential level, already makes great sense economically—but is most easily accomplished by somebody of a certain income. Still, Park City is doing well in efforts that also extend more broadly in Summit County and in neighboring Wasatch County

Park City sees itself as an aggressive but not always obvious agent of change.

“For us, it’s a lot of backside coordination to make what should be the choice seem obvious,” says Abbott.

Beyond these micro-strategies, Park City’s sustainability department has a broader task. It must demonstrate to elected officials that all of these changes are not only good, in order to reduce the city’s contribution to global warming, but that they’re cost-effective.

Aspen’s energy team uses a variety of media in seeking to engage its community: a Facebook page, press releases, posters, and public appearances. The strategy is to keep it bite-sized. Instead of doing 10 things to save energy, it’s just one—and oh, by the way, do this one more thing and we can give you money in a rebate.

Replicable programs

The Georgetown competition ends in December, but regardless of who wins the money, Abbott sees a larger goal and a greater prize. The quest, he says, is to create programs that are scalable in many other jurisdictions.

He points out that eastern Summit County, a half-hour away on the road to Wyoming, is a world apart from Park City culturally and economically. “If we’re resonating with eastern Summit County, there are large swatches of Utah we should also be resonating with.”

In other words, can Park City’s programs be scaled beyond the rarified air of Park City itself?

Clean energy and efficiency measures are not the easiest policies to sell in Utah, a state that has enjoyed cheap electricity from primarily coal-fired combustion.

Aspen also sees a greater goal of replicability. That might seem an odd idea. Aspen is … well, Aspen, rife with silver-heeled eccentrics, a magnet for billionaires, and uncommonly liberal. But French points out that roughly half of the town’s full-time residents live in affordable housing. They keep the place going, and in that sense, Aspen just might produce lessons that can play in Peoria, as they say.

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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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