Aspen Electric rates increase to offset energy consumption |

Aspen Electric rates increase to offset energy consumption

ASPEN ” Customers of the city’s public utility will soon see their bills increase based on how much energy they consume, and the revenue generated by their excess might make Aspen the leader in renewable energy throughout Colorado.

Starting on April 1, roughly 2,800 Aspen Electric customers will be billed on a tiered rate structure, generating an estimated $1.1 million in revenue annually, of which $400,000 will be put toward several new programs that are designed to have the city-owned utility company operate on 100 percent renewable energy. Aspen Electric already operates on 80 percent renewable energy.

The new rates will be based on consumption, with higher costs to those who consume more kilowatt hours on a monthly basis. The tiered structure is aimed at incentivizing customers to conserve energy. And for those who choose not to conserve regardless of the new rates, the additional revenue will offset increased energy costs, as well as pay for new renewable programs, officials said.

For most, rate increases will be minimal but others could see 30 percent higher bills.

“Most of the customers won’t see much of a difference,” said Phil Overeynder, the city’s public works director, adding the average household uses 700 kilowatt hours. “But we have customers who use 10 times that … those are the people who have an automatic incentive.”

While city officials continue to reach for 100 percent renewable energy, the ultimate goal is that homeowners who consume excessive amounts of energy will change their behaviors, saving them money and conserving resources.

One of the latest renewable programs offered by the city utilities department is free home energy audits conducted by a licensed, certified contractor.

The Aspen City Council in February signed off on a new program that will pay the first $250 toward an energy audit for customers to find efficiencies in their homes. The purpose is to bring to rate payers a one-stop-shop program of energy efficiency and building performance.

Through the Building Performance Institute (BPI), local contractors can be trained and certified to conduct the audits, and then provide the work ” whether it’s installing solar panels, insulation, weather stripping or a hot water heater blanket.

“Some of them are the easiest, fastest fixes,” said John Hines, the city’s renewable energy utilities manager, of people’s efforts to reduce their bills. “With those changes you’ll see a big difference. It’s a no-brainer.”

Through various national programs, financing options are available for homeowners to make improvements, Overeynder said. In some cases, people can be fully reimbursed for their energy-efficient improvements.

Mayor Mick Ireland last week referenced the certified contractor and energy financing program during a get-together with Gov. Bill Ritter. Ireland noted the local program is a stimulus of sorts for contractors who are out of work and looking for a new market to offer their services. He said he hopes the program can be a model for other Colorado municipalities.

“We’re doing things that I hope will be recognized around the state,” Ireland said.

Overeynder said the goal is to get 250 customers a year to engage in energy audits and take action on a contractor’s suggested changes.

Since 2004, the city’s utilities department has cut its coal and natural gas-based energy consumption by 50 percent, as staff found efficiencies in local facilities and through purchasing wind power in Nebraska. It has another 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions to eliminate before reaching 100 percent renewable energy, Overeynder said.

Up until now, it’s been relatively basic to reach 80 percent renewable, Hines said.

“The first steps are low-hanging fruit, and so far we’ve been able to do it but then it starts getting cost-prohibitive,” he said. “We can’t do more of the same to get there.”

The City Council in 2007 earmarked $150,000 to go toward renewable programs for Aspen Electric customers and Aspen residents, including rebates and free compact fluorescent light bulb giveaways. Now included in that dedicated money are the free energy audits.

The remaining $300,000 in additional revenue from the tiered rate structure will go to a plethora of new, cutting-edge projects that include geothermal, geo-exchange and ground source pump technology, as well as solar panel and microturbine installations, and hydrogen fuel programs.

Hines said the city’s utilities department is working closely with the governor’s Energy Office to receive federal stimulus money to fund many of the projects ” which were planned to take several years to complete but could be done within two years.

“We have 19 different applications [for federal stimulus money] and four different people working on it,” he said. “Our approach has changed because the landscape has changed.”

A new voter-approved hydropower plant being built under the Castle Creek bridge will reduce the utilities department’s emissions 5.5 percent, and a recent $100,000 purchase of additional wind energy in Nebraska will shave another 5 percent.

That leaves Overeynder’s team finding ways to eliminate the remaining 15,000 tons, or 10 percent, of its carbon emissions.

Aspen officials plan this year to drill an exploratory well in hopes of tapping geothermal heat. The goal is to find enough geothermal energy to heat 1 million square feet, which would cut Aspen’s natural gas needs by about 15 percent.

The geothermal heat would work by taking the steam and hot water produced in the earth’s core and using it to heat a glycol-based solution that circulates through buildings to heat them. Customers would pay according to the thermal units of energy used as the heated liquid goes by their building. Electricity is still needed to move the water.

Five locations have been identified for possible test wells: in Wagner Park, at the base of Aspen Mountain, Smuggler Park, Ajax Park and near the Cowenhoven Tunnel.

If underground Aspen proves to be a good geothermal source, the city may create a “heat district” like its current electric and water districts.

“If we do this, we’ll be the first town to do this in the state,” Hines said. “The benefits of it are enormous.”

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