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Andersen: Aspen’s rich pay for energy efficiency

Almost a million dollars a year are made available for energy efficiency in Pitkin County and the city of Aspen, thanks to rich homeowners. But it's neither altruism nor environmentalism that's driving this support — it's the law.

Rich homeowners pay the equivalent of indulgences for building oversized homes and installing energy-gulping amenities, like outdoor heated pools or acres of year-round snowmelt.

Payments are made to the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program as a way of protecting the environment and reducing climate change. The money goes to not-so-wealthy homeowners who cannot otherwise afford efficiency or alternative energy.

The Community Office of Resource Efficiency dispenses these funds, playing Robin Hood by taking from the rich and giving to the deserving poor.

CORE is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and it has something to celebrate. Since 2000, it has collected $14.5 million in Renewable Energy Mitigation Program funds that have underwritten 150 energy-efficiency projects for an estimated lifetime savings of 250 million kilowatt hours. This translates to $20 million in energy savings — no small potatoes.

What's more important — and timely — is the savings in carbon output by CORE initiatives, which aggregate to thousands of metric tons of carbon kept out of the atmosphere.

I took advantage of a CORE grant at the beginning of the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program. Fees paid by a Red Mountain mansion installed solar hot-water panels on my roof. They draw energy from the sun to cut both my energy bills and my household's carbon footprint, all for a minimal investment.

When I hear the faint purr of my pump kick on with the morning sun, I know my propane bill is reduced, giving me and my family free solar hot water for most of our household needs. Soaking in a solar-heated bath has become of one my life pleasures.

The roots of CORE go back to Bill Stirling's vision as mayor of Aspen in 1991, when he launched the Energy 2000 Committee with Alice Laird Hubbard. Aspen's Energy Office grew from this and opened in 1994, when Randy Udall and Lynne Haynes were made co-directors.

Autodidact energy analyst Udall and city and county building official Stephen Kanipe pushed REMP into legislation, the first of its kind in the U.S., and a pretty radical idea. Since then, other communities have adopted similar fees, including Martha's Vineyard, Eagle County, Telluride's Mountain Village and Jackson, Wyoming.

CORE's mission and scope have grown with expanded grants for energy efficiency, design and community projects. The offerings are huge, the savings worthwhile and the good feeling of shrinking your carbon footprint is worth every penny.

CORE also works with Energy Smart Colorado, a multi-county program that helps homeowners achieve comfort, safety and efficiency where they live. If your home is in Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, Summit, Gunnison or Lake counties, it's worth checking out.

CORE also partners with Aspen, Snowmass, Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs to conserve water through efficiency in our regional watershed. A homeowner's water program is part of that mission.

Considering that CORE has influenced 4,000 homes and 200 businesses, Director Mona Newton, along with community and outreach manager Lucy Kessler, is eager to keep playing the Robin Hood role by doling out the indulgences of the rich to worthy applicants.

One of the challenges today, they say, is keeping pace with the rising energy demands of cellphones, tablets, computers, iTunes, computer games, etc. Efficiency investments are hard-pressed trying to keep pace with "vampire" loads from these many devices.

Will the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program funds ever dry up? Will energy efficiency one day become a concern for energy gluttons who simply pay for indulgences? What is the price of a conscience where carbon is concerned? What will it take for citizens of all economic strata to recognize the climate and act in accordance with the good faith of global stewards?

These are hard questions that need hard answers.

While I'd hate to see CORE lose its funding base, it would be an acceptable price to pay for universal buy-in on climate. Robin Hood could retire from spreading the indulgences of the rich and settle down with Maid Marian in cozy, energy-efficient Locksley Hall.

Paul Andersen's column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at andersen@rof.net