Pitkin County mulls energy grants

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Requests for $486,000 worth of grants for various renewable energy and energy-efficiency efforts received an initial nod Wednesday from Pitkin County commissioners, though funding for electric-vehicle charging stations around Aspen and energy upgrades in worker housing raised brows for some officials.

A public hearing and possible formal approval of the grants is scheduled Aug. 10 before commissioners, and it appeared Wednesday that a pilot program to upgrade 10 sales units in the worker housing inventory might not make the cut.

The funding comes from the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program, or REMP, which collects dollars from development that exceeds an energy budget established in Aspen and Pitkin County and allocates them to various other efforts to reduce energy use or promote the use of renewable resources. For example, a property owner who installs a heated driveway either must offset that energy use with other measures on the property or pay a REMP fee.

Use of REMP revenues – $1.9 million had accumulated as of July 1 – must be approved by both commissioners and the Aspen City Council, based on recommendations from the Community Office for Resource Efficiency board and a citizen advisory committee.

In addition to supporting solar and appliance rebate programs, the latest round of REMP grants are proposed to go to various organizations between Aspen and Carbondale. The grants have traditionally gone to public agencies rather than private individuals, and several commissioners questioned spending $25,000 on a pilot program to upgrade the energy efficiency of affordable housing units that are owned by workers.

CORE proposed an additional $20,000 to upgrade rental units – an expenditure that commissioners did not question. The rentals remain under the control of the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority, noted Commissioner Jack Hatfield, advocating spending the dollars there.

“We’re making an investment in public property, not private property – that’s the key,” he said Thursday.

Commissioner Rachel Richards said she’s willing to consider the money for privately owned units, which come back into the housing authority’s ownership briefly whenever they change hands. Only qualified workers are allowed to own them.

“The vast amount of energy use in the United States is in older structures,” Richards said, suggesting retrofits to older buildings in the worker housing program might be appropriate.

Reducing energy consumption is the ultimate goal of REMP, and such work fits within that mission, added Nathan Ratledge, CORE director.

The city intends to look at the results of the upgrades as it undertakes a larger-scale efficiency project in its worker housing, according to CORE.

Commissioners were also unsure about spending $30,000 on electric-vehicle charging stations in Aspen. The city has secured two free stations from Siemens, a manufacturer, and intends to install them in front of City Hall. REMP funding would allow the installation of others around town.

The stations will be beefy enough to charge both small, neighborhood vehicles (the little three-wheelers, for example) as well as highway vehicles. The city’s intent is to monitor their use and electricity consumption before deciding what kind of fee it might charge to plug in a vehicle, according to a city utilities official.

CORE urged supporting at least three more stations in the city and county, but commissioners asked for information on how many electric vehicles are in use locally, in order be better judge whether the expense is warranted.

It’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument, Richards said: Will the stations result in more people using electric vehicles, or should use of electric vehicles drive the installation of stations?

“If we put them in, hopefully you increase demand for electric cars. That’s the hope,” said Brian Pettet, county director of public works.

Other proposed grant allocations include $15,000 to the Aspen Historical Society for energy efficiency as it upgrades its archives building; $7,500 to the Carbondale Rural and Fire Protection District to help replace garage doors at its station; $5,000 to the Little Red School House for window replacement, $10,000 to Mountain Valley Development Services for a solar array on its greenhouse; $33,000 to the Roaring Fork Conservancy to help pay for a geothermal system at its planned new River Center in Basalt; $6,000 for energy upgrades at Crystal River Elementary School; $10,000 to Rock Bottom Ranch for a solar-powered greenhouse; $5,000 to Wyly Arts Center to complete a lighting upgrade; and $10,000 to the city of Aspen to upgrade its photovoltaic system on the Yellow Brick School.

For most of the projects, the proposed grant would cover only a small portion of the overall cost.