Carbondale's community connector

CLEER, GCE continue drive to cut energy costs

Locations: News Published

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

Carbondale (meaning residents, businesses, the town government, etc.) in 2014 spent nearly $18 million in 2014 on energy costs, about $11 million of which was associated with transportation, according to the groups that keep track of such things.

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But over the past decade, changes in how the town’s energy resources are generated and used (and, more particularly, not used) are believed to have cut local energy costs considerably, according to town officials and representatives of the Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER), Garfield Clean Energy (GCE) and its related organizations.

Back in 2009, the town spent about $7.9 million on utilities, according to Erica Sparhawk of CLEER.

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In 2014, disregarding $11 million or so in fuel costs, Carbondale is estimated to have spent just shy of $7 million on utility bills, “so we’re spending about $1 million less on our utility bills as a community,” Sparhawk said.

The town’s energy-efficiency programming also has significantly reduced the amount of greenhouse gas emissions attributed to heating and lighting Carbondale’s homes and businesses, according to the experts.

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Carbondale’s trustees in 2006 enacted what is known as the Carbondale 2020 Plan, or the Energy and Climate Protection Plan, with the goal of cutting energy use by 20 percent by the year 2020.

The town has not quite achieved that goal, said Sparhawk, though she added, “we’re on track (but) with a little catching up to do.”

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For example, said Sparhawk, the costs of powering Carbondale’s Roaring Fork wastewater treatment plant, once about the most expensive energy hog operated by the town, have been cut by more than half, thanks to the installation and use of a solar array in the field next to the plant.

And Carbondale, more than any town in the region, has been an active and dedicated participant in these programs, as a way of reducing the amount of greenhouse gases created by the town’s energy consumption, as well as cutting costs.

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But the ongoing set of programs that the town, working with CLEER, GCE and the Community Office of Resource Efficiency (CORE) put in place in 2006 were deemed in need of an update, and citizen involvement is a big part of that update.

Starting with a meeting held on Oct. 3, Sparhawk is shepherding a Climate Action Energy Plan process with a citizens advisory group, with the goal of putting together an energy conservation platform to replace the once originally created in 2006.

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Acting on that plan, the town has worked to “lead by example,” as the plan describes it, by increasing the energy efficiency of its buildings, closely monitoring energy use through a relatively new technological system call the Energy Navigator (there was no such monitoring system in place prior to 2006).

The town also has subsidized efforts by consultants, mainly CLEER, GCE and CORE, to work with local homeowners and businesses to either build more energy-efficient buildings or retrofit homes and businesses with energy-conservation and alternative-energy technology, meant to reduce the town’s “carbon footprint,” or the amount of energy used by residents, businesses and government facilities generally.

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By the reckoning of the consulting agencies, the energy efficiency programs have attracted the involvement of more than 40 local businesses and 400 local homeowners.

Sparhawk, in an interview with the Sopris Sun, said the series of three planning sessions (upcoming sessions are to be on Oct. 24 and Dec. 5) are intended to draw ideas from the public about the future direction of Carbondale’s energy-efficiency programming goals and build on the work started in 2006.

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“The Town of Carbondale has identified climate action planning as a priority. The first climate plan for Carbondale, the Energy and Climate Protection Plan, was adopted in 2006,” states a summary on the website,, where readers can find a wealth of documents related to the town’s climate action planning, including a slide show from the Oct. 3 energy planning session.

“Now, ten years later, the Town has directed us to inventory progress made towards the goals, convene community workshops, and draft a new plan reflecting local climate priorities,” the summary concludes.

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The summary refers to a “broad-based group of almost 50 community members” including business owners, residents, energy specialists and others.

Explaining the tactics for drawing participants to the Oct. 3 workshop, Sparhawk noted, “We tried to broaden it beyond the usual participants, with personal invites, instead of just expecting those folks to respond to an ad in the paper.” E-mailed invitations were sent out to about 90 recipients, she said, including the town’s largest employers — City Market, Ace Hardware, Backbone Media and a few others.

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“There were really only a handful of people there,” Sparhawk recalled, noting that City Market did not send a representative, though she hopes the grocery chain will participate in future sessions.

At that initial session, she said, the group spent its time being introduced to the issues underlying the work of CORE, CLEER and GCE. Participants also were given “homework” assignments — to pick a topic from a list of “focus areas” that included transportation, residential and commercial energy efficiency, government energy efficiency, renewable energy resources, waste, local food and purchasing.

“The next meeting will be when we will be rolling up our sleeves and identifying strategies that the town wants to pursue in these different focus areas,” she said.

Sparhawk said the initial meeting spent no time discussing the electorate’s rejection last spring of a tax measure that would have created a property tax to provide a permanent funding source for the town’s energy work.

Asked whether the planning sessions were meant to build a foundation for a similar, future tax hike to pay for the town’s energy-efficiency work, Sparhawk shook her head and said, “I think we’ll wait and see what the group comes up with.”

The reason to hold off on any such discussion, she said, was “because, despite that vote, the town has done a lot and invested a lot of funds, and the community has seen progress. So we’re not at the point of starting from scratch. We’ve got a lot of history to build on, and a lot of successes.”

Plus, she said, the failure of the tax question has not dealt a severe blow to the town’s energy-efficiency work so far.

“We haven’t had to scale back,” she remarked, “but what the funding would have done is, it would have created the ability to move a bunch of things forward, to meet new targets.” It is that kind of information — new target goals and plans for how to meet them — that she hopes will come out of the planning sessions.

One unanticipated problem area has been the energy consumption represented by the town’s expanding cannabis industry, notably the electricity used by marijuana cultivation facilities (known as “grows”) that base their business model on growing marijuana plants indoors under an array of lights.

“Grow houses are so energy intensive, beyond what we’re normally used to,” she said, that this one economic sector is believed to have put a crimp in the town’s planning.

But that is not an insurmountable hurdle, she said.

Another unknown in Carbondale’s energy picture, she said, is the energy consumption and emissions related to the transportation sector, which in this area comprises mainly “light-duty vehicles” such as cars, small trucks and delivery vehicles.

The transportation-related data referred to in reports, she said, comes from Garfield County, state and national studies, which cannot accurately predict Carbondale’s situation.

Carbondale, she said, has only a small amount of light industry and practically no large commercial enterprises beyond City Market.

“Carbondale really is a residential community,” she explained, in which average energy use already is well below that of Colorado and the nation as a whole.

Much of that is due to the town’s emphasis on installing photovoltaic solar panels on homes, businesses and at local schools, among other installations over the past decade or so.

She pointed to a slide she displayed at the Oct. 3 planning session that indicates the town has more than 1,000 kilowatts worth of solar energy capacity.

“We’ve had pretty amazing growth,” she said. “I mean, we’re over a megawatt of solar in our town.”

Published in The Sopris Sun on October 20, 2016.