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What’s Old Is New: Reinventing a Community’s Energy Future in Fort Collins

By Eric Maurer

Take a journey back in time with me. Wind the clock back about fifty years and imagine strolling through the downtown of a nearby town or city. Birds are chirping. The sun is shining. You walk at a casual pace, peering into the windows of local independent restaurants, ice cream shops, and a hardware store. Smiles from the random passersby welcome you along the way.

That nostalgic vision of yesteryear is still alive in the present. These are just some of the things I saw and heard while taking a recent tour through Old Town.

Old Town is located in the downtown area of Fort Collins, a small city of about 150,000 in Northern Colorado. One million people per year visit the community, according to a 2013 report from Colorado State University, which is located in town. Another 16 million people per year also visit Fort Collins via California. How? Fort Collins is one of two U.S. communities after which Disneyland modeled its Main Street USA.

And while Old Town is capable of transporting the traveler back in time, there is something distinctly modern happening beneath its surface of brick buildings, cobblestone walkways, and canvas awnings.


Old Town is at the epicenter of an energy revolution. In 2007, UniverCity Connections, an initiative of the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado, cooked up an idea to create what it called FortZED—an effort to transform the downtown area of Fort Collins into a net-zero energy district through energy conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other smart technologies. Definitions of a net-zero energy district vary. In the case of Fort Collins, UniverCity Connections envisioned a downtown district that becomes super-energy-efficient and draws its remaining electricity needs from a diverse set of local renewable resources, such as wind, solar PV, and biomass.

Achieving such a vision would be a pathbreaking achievement. The downtown area of Fort Collins represents 10–15 percent of the total electric demand in Fort Collins. The district covers two and a half square miles and serves about 6,000 customers, plus the main campus of Colorado State University. Fort Collins currently gets two-thirds of its electricity from coal-fired power plants, and just five percent from renewables.


Even at the outset of the FortZED project, there were things to celebrate about its electricity system. Fort Collins electricity prices are 40 percent below the national average, while boasting triple the reliability as well as savings from energy efficiency comparable to some of the best programs in the country. Momentum has only been building from there.

To get things going, the initial team behind the FortZED idea formed a steering committee with heavy hitters from the city government, the city’s municipal utility, and the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster, an organization made up of local cleantech companies dedicated to growing the cleantech industry across the state.

The ambitious net-zero energy goal immediately proved catalytic for the committee, helping them identify two large grants to kick-start efforts in FortZED. The first grant, from the State of Colorado, helped the city and its partners leverage $778,000 from the state to generate another $2 million in local matching funds that resulted in efficiency improvements to four large public buildings and the installation of a 54-kilowatt solar PV array on another building.

The second grant put FortZED on the fast track to meeting its long-term aspirations. The committee, working closely with the municipal utility, landed $6.3 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and $5 million from local matches. As part of a series of DOE projects called Renewable and Distributed Systems Integration (RDSI), Fort Collins Utilities set out to use the funding to build the connective tissue that allows electric demand and supply sources in the downtown area to communicate with one another and the utility. Using this new system to activate and manage solar PV, diesel generators, gas turbines, thermal storage, and load shedding from various demands, the utility demonstrated 20 percent drops in its peak electricity demand.

The first phase of the RDSI project, completed in 2011 with reporting extending into 2012, proved hugely important for FortZED. It created the technology and communications backbone that will allow the downtown area to effectively integrate more sources of distributed electricity generation like solar PV. But perhaps more important than the technological gains are the working relationships that developed because of RDSI. To carry out the project, the city and the utility established public-private partnerships with local technology providers and major customers. These relationships are key to the next exciting steps.


While these first two projects formed the foundation for FortZED, the steering committee recognized that the district’s success ultimately demands very high levels of engagement from the community. In 2010, the committee worked with several community members and the nonprofit The Atmosphere Conservancy to create the FortZED Community Energy Challenge. The Challenge is a grassroots effort to attract community members to take a pledge to reduce energy use in their homes; the Challenge has registered over 2,100 community members to date.

Judy Dorsey, executive director of the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster and instrumental in the founding and development of FortZED, says scenario planning shows that the combination of the FortZED Energy Challenge, the building retrofits, and RDSI, coupled with existing city-wide efficiency and renewables programs, will provide approximately 15 percent of the resources to reach net zero by 2030. Admittedly, there is much left to be done.


Unfazed by this challenge, the FortZED team is charging ahead with the help of RMI. In November 2012, RMI’s e-Lab hosted a two-day charrette in Fort Collins to help the city’s leaders identify new opportunities to accelerate FortZED and the whole city’s move toward a clean energy future.

The charrette resulted in two project ideas that are moving forward. In one, e-Lab is working directly with Fort Collins Utilities to explore changes in the utility’s customer offerings that could induce unprecedentedly high levels of adoption for energy efficiency measures and solar PV. The potential changes being explored include innovative tariff designs, on-bill repayment of energy-related investments, and incentives that reflect the value of distributed energy resources. Together, e-Lab and Fort Collins Utilities are pioneering the development of a small-customer energy services company (ESCO) structure that could deliver integrated packages of energy efficiency services, solar PV, and other options for the customer.

In the second and complementary project, RMI is developing a detailed, Fort Collins-level Reinventing Fire vision to show the way forward to dramatically accelerate citywide goals to transition from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables.

In addition, the FortZED steering committee is in the midst of creating several new projects to move the district closer to its goals. The committee is currently evaluating a wide range of potential projects for selection and planning in the next few months. The projects will touch on each of the four strategic elements of the FortZED plan: 1) reduce energy demand, 2) invest in renewable energy, 3) manage peak load, and 4) adopt smart grid technologies.

As it continues to build on its past successes with new projects, the city sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Keep your eye on what is going on in Fort Collins. If an energy revolution can happen on Main Street USA, it can happen anywhere.

For more information, read RMI’s report Building the Electricity System of the Future: Fort Collins & FortZED.

Eric Maurer is a senior consultant for RMI. 


Building photo copyright RMI/Chris Rowe.
Fort Collins aerial courtesy of Visit Fort Collins.
Solar PV rooftop image courtesy of New Belgium Brewery.

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