RMI alumna Alice Laird and alumnus Mike Ogburn are providing the spark for a clean energy economy in a place still blazing with fossil-fuel extraction.
The growing public-private initiative their team has fostered in Garfield County, Colorado, a few miles northwest of RMI’s birthplace at Old Snowmass, is intentionally built on many of RMI’s core principles. It has produced more than $1 million in energy savings so far for local governments, schools, businesses, and homes, and generated close to $7 million in work for local clean-energy contractors, suppliers and businesses, according to a report to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. Projects completed to date are projected to save an additional $5.5 million per year over the next five years.
Laird and Ogburn work for CLEER, Clean Energy Economy for the Region. The CLEER team is working to turn the approach developed in Garfield County — and tools such as an online dashboard to improve buildings’ energy use — into a model that can be easily applied in other locations across the country.
Their 3-year-old nonprofit organization has created a countywide Garfield Clean Energy Collaborative with nine formal government partners. More than 70 businesses, 1,000 households and two school districts have signed up to participate in energy efficiency programs.
Garfield County, though growing rapidly as a retirement and getaway destination along with the rest of the beautiful Roaring Fork Valley, remains a rural region of about 60,000 residents with deep roots in the old energy economy. It’s one of three Colorado counties with more than $1 billion a year in oil and natural gas extraction.
The countywide collaborative provides a framework for an entire region to work toward adopted targets for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and petroleum independence. Garfield Clean Energy programs take an RMI-inspired, integrated, whole-systems approach that addresses residential, commercial, government, and transportation energy use.
“What makes this effort succeed is its emphasis on regional and cross-sector collaboration. The goal was to create a strong partnership among multiple governments, nonprofits, educational institutions, the private sector, and citizens, to increase significantly the rate of change in addressing energy challenges across all energy sectors, and create a structure that would make change durable over the long term,” said Laird, founder and director of CLEER.
“Another key factor for success is our emphasis on making energy data accessible and useful to guide improvements,” said Mike Ogburn, energy engineer for CLEER. Ogburn worked at RMI during 2006–08, mainly on the Institute’s breakthrough initiative on Transformational Trucking, whose conclusions were later confirmed by the National Academies.
Among CLEER’s key tools is an energy/economic opportunity analysis conducted early in the effort to engage residents in realizing the economic potential of energy efficiency.
CLEER grew from 10 years of post-RMI efforts by Laird, who worked mainly in the Institute’s sustainable communities practice during 1990–96, including co-authorship of the Community Energy Workbook in 1995. While at RMI, she cofounded The Community Office for Resource Efficiency, a nonprofit based in Pitkin County. After leaving RMI, she worked for local and regional governments to move sustainable transportation systems forward, and helped lead the expansion of the Aspen/Pitkin transit agency into the state’s first rural transportation authority. Laird then founded New Century Transportation Foundation, a civic organization that builds community support and enlists additional funding sources to implement the regional transit and trails plans developed by the public sector. Laird also served on the Carbondale town council, leading energy and sustainability initiatives.
When she started CLEER, Laird said she knew energy efficiency had enormous potential, but “I had no idea of the vast amount of energy wasted right before our eyes,” she said. Carbondale’s LEED Platinum recreation center, for example, was using twice as much energy as modeled in its design plan.
CLEER helped rectify that, but it is not an uncommon level of energy waste in buildings, even new ones, which often have complex control systems but don’t get properly commissioned to ensure that they work as intended. Another building using twice its projected energy was Laird’s daughter’s school, where the daughter asked why the lights were on continually in a daylit stairwell. “The building was so complicated,” said Laird, “that nobody knew how to just turn the lights off.”
Now, with the Garfield collaborative showing strong results and the government partners creating a permanent authority that, as Ogburn puts it, “institutionalizes RMI-like ideas,” Laird wants to make the approach and programs of Garfield Clean Energy available as a turnkey system available to other regions.
“If every region had a partnership that could easily tap the programs and tools we are using, we could reduce dependence on oil and vastly increase the rate of adopting energy efficiency to build a stronger economy,” Laird said. “We would have a hope of tackling climate change.” The Garfield Clean Energy approach is unusual nationwide, she added, because it uses deep data to benchmark measurable savings, builds broad community partnerships, and emphasizes economic development.
CLEER’s energy navigator, a web-based tool Ogburn developed that shows energy use every quarter-hour in more than 80 buildings in the region, helps make savings visible and vivid, encouraging adoption. The navigator helps building managers find and eliminate energy spikes and spot when equipment isn’t working right.
John Evans, facilities manager for Alpine Bank, said the navigator led to enough energy savings in just six months to more than pay for the monitoring equipment installed in June 2011 on the bank’s operations center in Rifle. The building’s electricity use was reasonably well managed, he said, but consumption still was cut by 7 percent almost immediately, and early natural gas savings were 13 percent.
“It makes energy use visible,” he said. “People suddenly start, almost by osmosis, doing little things that save energy.”
Said Laird, “We have a dream to make it a community dashboard,” showing energy use from public buildings, businesses and housing stock, as well as transportation systems, and to offer the navigator software to many other places. She added: “We need to make rapid, whole-systems implementation of energy efficiency easier. RMI has been leading this effort for a long time.” And CLEER, which demonstrates the wide influence of RMI alumni in applying Institute ideas, is making it real at a grassroots level.
With 3,143 counties nationwide, 73 percent of which are classified as non-metropolitan, the potential impact of the approach is huge. Here’s a crude projection of the potential: Buildings in Garfield County use $70 million a year worth of electricity. The energy collaborative is just getting started, but if half the county’s building stock saved just 10 percent on electricity, that’s a $3.5 million annual savings. Now, if a quarter of the nation’s counties did the same (assuming average electricity costs similar to Garfield’s, which may be conservative because of Garfield’s small population), the annual energy savings nationwide would exceed $2.7 billion to be put back in local economies.
Besides Laird and Ogburn, CLEER staff includes RMI alumnus Cam Burns in communications. Burns was senior editor at RMI from 2000 to 2011. Dave Reed, another alumnus, serves on the Board of Directors, as does current staffer Michael Kinsley.