Driving job creation, energy savings
As local communities continue to suffer from the current economic slowdown, as governments and businesses pinch pennies and pare budgets down to the bare minimum, the idea of spending money to save energy may seem counter-intuitive to some.But to others, the question is not simply whether putting alternative energy systems to work is costly, or will save energy and money in the long run.No, to some, it has been a matter of survival.”I would have been in the unemployment line if it weren’t for this,” said Mark McLain, a Carbondale architect, referring to Garfield County’s expanding energy efficiency and renewable energy market.”I’m a pretty small fish, but it’s been a huge difference to me,” he added.”It” is the growing commitment to clean energy, from generating renewable energy through solar and wind power to aggressive energy efficiency projects by local governments and residential and commercial property owners.McLain, whose architectural business took a nosedive after the financial meltdown of 2008, also was a certified energy auditor thanks to a class he took at the Solar Energy International in Carbondale.He started conducting energy audits, and found that in doing so he was generating commissions for architectural work, too. Hence, his ability to survive, even thrive, without resorting to public assistance.Is McLain’s story one that has broader implications, or was he just lucky?
The upsurge in interest and participation among businesses and residents, as well as government, is now a fact in Garfield County.Dozens of public buildings and businesses, along with scores of private homes, are using some type of application of clean energy.According to Alice Laird of Carbondale, director of Garfield Clean Energy, the organization has “stimulated demand for energy upgrades offered by local firms and installed by local workers skilled in energy improvements.”She reported that more than $600,000 has been spent in energy evaluations and energy-conservation upgrades for business, homes and affordable housing units.”Over $2.3 million has been invested in renewable energy,” she wrote in a written statement, “stimulating demand for products and firms that install solar systems.”She said more than 60 businesses and 1,000 households have signed up for the Garfield Clean Energy Challenge, which involves energy evaluations and subsequent energy-efficiency improvements.Savings so far, as a result of these improvements, have topped $310,000 for business and homes where upgrades were made, and she expects those numbers to rise.For example, Lynn Dwyer, owner of Dwyer’s Flowers & Greens, a plant nursery and greenhouse south of New Castle, worked with an energy coach who helped her find an “energy curtain” system. The curtains, installed inside the greenhouse reflect sunlight and provide shade in the heat of the summer, and can be used as a type of insulating blanket for cooler times. They open and close using an automated system.A $5,000 grant through GCE, she said, brought the price tag for the curtains down enough that she could afford the project.She said the curtains cut her propane bills by 25 percent last year. Now she plans on making further improvements to cut her bills even more.Noting that tracking energy use is the first step to saving energy, Laird reported that 67 government buildings across Garfield County are now using a new website, garfieldenergynavigator.org, to track their energy consumption. With the data collected, building managers are adjusting lighting, heating and cooling to save on utility bills.School districts, too, are getting involved.Laird said 20 schools in the Roaring Fork and Garfield Re-2 school districts have signed on for “comprehensive data-driven energy conservation programs.”The results have cut more than $150,000 from the Roaring Fork District’s utility expenses, and $60,000 in savings in the Garfield Re-2 district, she said.
McLain, along with a dozen or so other area business owners and individuals, testified recently at a work session of the Garfield Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) in support of continued government funding for, and involvement with Garfield Clean Energy, an intergovernmental association formed in 2008. (It was previously called Garfield New Energy Communities Initiative.)Eileen Wysocki, a member of the Climate Action Committee for the town of New Castle and a professional energy auditor for Holy Cross Energy, noted that Garfield Clean Energy has been instrumental in helping the town identify its own energy efficiency standards for building codes, and in increasing the energy efficiency of town government buildings.”We need this group to help us as a utility,” she said, wearing her Holy Cross Energy hat. “They’re extraordinarily knowledgeable. I’m going to them all the time.”Plus, she said, “We need them to get our contractors up to speed” concerning installation, maintenance and repairs of clean energy systems.”A direct result of this is job creation,” Wysocki said, maintaining that the clean energy industry provides jobs for electricians, builders and others who have been idled by the ongoing collapse of the regional construction trade.She said Holy Cross Energy has embarked on a new energy efficiency program with the help of Garfield Clean Energy. It’s in keeping with the utility’s philosophy that “if people are spending less on their utility bills, they have more money to spend on other things.”
Sher Long, a spokeswoman for EnCana Oil and Gas (USA), noted that the natural gas industry is the biggest user of solar panels in Garfield County. The panels generate power for remote well monitoring systems. Long said there are roughly 2,500 panels in use by EnCana alone.EnCana is also deeply involved in a local government and private sector push to establish compressed natural gas (CNG) as a viable vehicle fuel in the area. The effort is under way with a CNG fueling pump that opened this summer at the Shell gas station in Rifle owned by Kirk Swallow.EnCana has 50 CNG vehicles in its fleet and is planning for more. Other area gas drilling companies are working on similar vehicle conversions.Long said EnCana was invited to get involved with Garfield Clean Energy last spring, as the organization was preparing to remake itself as the Garfield Clean Energy Authority.The company jumped at the chance, she said, underscoring its established track record of support for energy efficiency projects.”Over the past two years, we’ve made Community Investment Grants totaling over $250,000 related to energy efficiency,” Long said, “such as a grant to Roaring Fork Habitat for Humanity for its first ‘net zero’ home.” The home produces as much energy through solar power as it consumes on a yearly basis.Other grants have helped pay for energy efficient natural gas boilers in new libraries in Rifle and Parachute, boiler upgrades for Rifle City Hall and the Rifle Senior Center, and energy efficiency retrofits for the Rifle Housing Authority’s stock of worker housing, she said.
First established in 2008 under the name Garfield New Energy Communities Initiative, or G-NECI, the organization began as one of 14 community clean energy projects funded by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.It included nine local government partners, with Garfield County as the lead fiscal agent, plus all six towns in the county, the Garfield Public Library District and RFTA, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. The group simplified its name to Garfield Clean Energy this year. Throughout that time, the work of Garfield Clean Energy has been carried out by the Carbondale-based nonprofit CLEER: Clean Energy Economy for the Region, under a contract with Garfield County.The next step in its evolution is aimed at moving Garfield Clean Energy from its tenuous status as an intergovernmental agreement among the nine partners to establishing it as a freestanding clean energy authority under provisions set out by the state Legislature.The Garfield Clean Energy Collaborative, according to an intergovernmental agreement already signed by the towns of Rifle and New Castle, calls for participating local governments to contribute funding based on a formula that takes into account the community’s population and its energy use.Garfield County’s proposed share, for instance, is $155,000, while Parachute is being asked to pay $6,000 and the Library District $5,000.Laird and others with Garfield Clean Energy are planning to visit the governments of all six towns over the coming weeks to ask elected leaders to sign up.
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