A 12-year-old program in Aspen and Pitkin County that charges homebuilders a fee if their projects consume excess energy might be helping change attitudes.
The Renewable Energy Mitigation Program (REMP) has collected $9 million in fees since it was adopted in 2000, but the amount of funds raised annually has declined over the last five years.
The economic downturn, which swept the Roaring Fork Valley in late 2009, ate into the program because construction activity slowed so drastically. But even before the recession, the annual amount of fees collected was falling.
Mona Newton, executive director of the Community Officer for Resource Efficiency (CORE), said she suspects more homebuilders are undertaking renewable energy projects to lower their power consumption. For example, a home with a snowmelt system for a driveway and sidewalks might install enough solar photovoltaic capability to provide warm water for the system rather than pay a fee for the energy use.
"It's very cost effective to invest in renewables right now," Newton said.
CORE administers energy mitigation program but it hasn't tracked projects well enough to know if more home builders are installing renewables rather than paying the impact fee. Newton said a study is underway to determine the answer.
A memo to the Pitkin County commissioners as part of a recent update on the energy mitigation program said building codes are getting more aggressive on energy efficiency requirements, and architects and builders are better educated on new energy savings technologies and renewable energy systems. Plus renewables keep getting more cost effective, so architects, builders and homeowners are embracing them.
"Most of these factors can be attributed to the success of REMP - it has helped build a market for renewable energy and energy efficiency," a staff memo to the commissioners said.
The $9 million collected through the program gets reinvested in the Roaring Fork Valley specifically on projects that directly offset energy consumption and carbon emissions. The Green Key Grant program has awarded $5 million to 80 projects in the valley, ranging from a car-share program in Aspen to a solar photovoltaic system at the Third Street Center headquarters for nonprofit organizations in Carbondale.
In addition, the energy mitigation fees have produced the revenues to offer Roaring Fork Valley residents rebates when they buy super efficient appliances. CORE issued 430 rebates totaling nearly $65,000 in 2011.
The idea behind the program is the rebates and grants spur purchases and projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Those steps offset the emissions created when a McMansion installs an outdoor, heated pool or a snowmelt system that isn't hooked to a renewable energy source.
"The program ostensibly established the first 'carbon tax' in the nation and has since been replicated by a number of communities around the country and the state," said the staff memo to the county commissioners.
"For me, REMP is a highly-successful program," Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield said during the review of the effort.
Commissioner Michael Owsley agreed that the results over the last 12 years have been impressive. However, true success would mean no energy mitigation fees were being collected because all builders weren't exceeding power budgets. As long as outdoor pools and snowmelt systems are being built without the builders investing in renewables to offset them, there is failure, he said.
"I don't know how we can be totally happy with the program," Owsley said.
He encouraged Newton and her staff to find ways to improve the program, such as getting 100 percent of builders to live within their energy budget and not be in a position to pay an energy mitigation fee.
"If we want to push the envelope, how do we challenge ourselves?" Owsley asked.
Hatfield said he would remain a supporter of the program, even if it remains necessary to charge the mitigation fee.
"Are we satisfied with where we're at? No," Hatfield said. "Are we going to move forward? Yes."