Getting at the CORE of carbon neutral in the Roaring Fork Valley
Community Office of Resource Efficiency is at a crossroads after 27 years of serving the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond with environmental programs
A local nonprofit charged with supporting energy efficiency, renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions in the upper valley has had such a significant impact over its 27-year history that its main funding source is evaporating.
The Community Office for Resource Efficiency, created in 1994, was a groundbreaking effort that partnered local governments, local utilities and citizens to create a sustainable energy future in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The Renewable Energy Mitigation Program (REMP) that was established in 1999 to financially support CORE, also was considered visionary at the time.
The program, which Pitkin County and the city of Aspen adopted, requires property owners who install energy-sucking amenities such as heated pools and snowmelt driveways to offset those carbon emissions by either paying a fee or installing renewables onsite.
Since Pitkin County tightened up its building code last year to require new homes to be built more energy efficient, REMP fees aren’t being paid at the same level as before.
“The building code is such that people can’t by their way out of it anymore,” said Aspen City Councilman Ward Hauenstein who serves on the CORE board as the city’s representative.
Aspen and Pitkin County used to give CORE the same amount of REMP revenue each year, but the nonprofit is leaning on the city more these days as the county’s contributions are drying up.
CORE’s budget this year is nearly $2 million. The city gave CORE $1.4 million and county contributed $270,000 from REMP, according to the organization’s executive director, Mona Newton.
For 2022, CORE is asking the city to contribute $1.2 million, and Newton is scheduled to present the organization’s plans for the future in front of Aspen City Council later this month in a work session.
“We are just reminding the city what we’ve been up to,” said Bill Stirling, co-founder of CORE, a former Aspen mayor and now chair of the CORE board.
Since its inception, CORE has given away almost $10 million in energy efficient grants to local residents for home upgrades, and renewable energy installations for public buildings and incentives for businesses to do the same.
A transition year for mission and money
CORE is in a transition year as it pivots from energy efficiency to reducing the valley’s carbon footprint.
“Carbon reduction is the focus and electrification is the word,” Stirling said, noting that 55% of the carbon is produced by homes in the valley, which is why retrofitting existing residential buildings is a big focus for CORE in the future.
CORE gives rebates to homeowners to make improvements and provides assessments on how to make properties operate more efficiently, which translates into cost savings and a reduction in carbon emissions.
Horizons need to be expanded and more partnerships must be made for CORE to push the envelope further into the world of net zero.
“It’s a transitional time for us,” Stirling said. “We are trying to be relevant in a changing world.”
When CORE was faced with a deficit due to less money from the county, it found new funding from Eagle County to serve residents and businesses with advising and incentives, Newton said.
Program also were cut, including the Randy Udall Grant, and other smaller grant programs, as well as incentives for residential and commercial buildings, she said.
Stirling said CORE has applied for grants and is requesting funding from places like the Bezos Earth Fund to be less reliant on what’s become a volatile revenue source.
Future REMP collections are difficult to estimate since the fund is dependent on construction activity, but it is also what items are being constructed and if there is going to be mitigation or not by the builder or owner, according to City Finance Director Pete Strecker.
“So future looking, we try to peg a more conservative figure and, in tandem, caution the council about this being a difficult number to estimate and not to take it to the bank (leave some fund balance in reserve),” Strecker said.
The city’s REMP fund balance is roughly $4 million, which is better than projected because revenues came in above the conservative estimate in 2020.
The estimate was $800,000 and $1.2 million was generated, according to Strecker.
The fund balance is higher than normal also because the city postponed moving forward with $470,000 that would be under the purview of the city’s climate action team.
This project may be prioritized for 2021, so those funds could be pledged again by council for that work, Strecker noted.
That specific project is focused on improving energy efficiency at some of the older rental properties in the community, the details of which are still in the works.
“It’s ironic that (the city and county) are controlling the money yet we created the program,” Stirling said.
‘Finding a direction forward’
Hauenstein said he supports what the organization does but is concerned about its spending and long-term sustainable funding.
“I don’t see a lot that CORE has done to increase their income and decrease their expenses,” he said. “I don’t see a real path forward where the increased funding is from the city … my loyalty as a board member is to CORE but as the guardian of taxpayer money I’m looking for results.”
George Newman, former Pitkin County commissioner who left office earlier this year due to term limits and was chair of the CORE board for 10 years, said the organization is highly effective with its grants, rebates and assessments.
“That money is distributed eight or nine times over,” he said. “It’s a tremendous benefit on how those dollars go in and out.”
And as Newman, Stirling and Newton pointed out, it takes money and people to make buildings pollution free.
“Getting rid of carbon takes resources so we are trying to diversify our funding sources,” Newton said.
CORE’s reach, which extended from Aspen to Rifle to Gypsum, has been contracted as well, since county and city attorneys have recently weighed in on the legality of spending outside of the jurisdictions where the fee is collected.
One idea for a new revenue stream is CORE charging for consulting services outside of Pitkin County.
A strategic plan will be presented to council that shows how CORE’s mission supports the city’s environmental goals and a path forward to net zero.
“We’ve charged Mona to find a direction forward,” Hauenstein said. “The duty of CORE is where does it fit in sequestering carbon and how it works with the city and county.”
With many lingering questions still surrounding the fate of Aspen’s historic Old Powerhouse, City Council decided during Monday’s work session to hold off on providing staff direction on moving the preservation project forward until more information can be presented.