Utility usage, waste levels down in Aspen area during COVID-19 crisis
For nearly six weeks, Pitkin County residents have been forced to spend more time in their homes to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
The ski lifts stopped running early. Most businesses and restaurants reduced operations partially or completely long before the normal offseason start date. And while more people are living the majority of their lives at home, the county’s overall electricity usage and solid waste levels have generally declined.
“Certainly after the public health orders came out and the commercial businesses shut down we saw a shift in our demand,” said Tyler Christoff, director of the city of Aspen’s utilities department. “So as you’d expect we’ve seen a little bit more usage on the residential side of things as people are staying home per the order and our commercial use has gone down quite a bit.”
Those residential and commercial shifts leveled out to an overall 15% to 20% decline in electricity usage over the same time period last year, Christoff said, and a roughly 18% decline in water use.
The city of Aspen’s utilities department provides potable water and electric services to about 7,100 commercial and residential customers, Christoff said, including the historic downtown of Aspen.
Since the county’s stay-at-home public health order was put in place, Christoff said his staff has worked to be especially mindful of COVID-19 health and safety protocols and has committed to not disconnecting anyone’s services for non-payment.
“We understand this is an unprecedented time and in unprecedented times I think we need to be a compassionate organization and work with the community to ride it out collectively,” Christoff said, noting that his department helps point people to any relief services they may need and develops payment plans for those struggling financially.
“It remains to be seen what the overall financial hit is for us. … Obviously water and electric service are key services and so we’re working during this crisis to facilitate the ability for the community to stay at home and shelter in place.”
Christoff went on to say that the city utilities department is keeping a close eye on its budget and ways it may have to adjust as a result of COVID-19-related revenue loss, but that no major capital improvement projects have been postponed as of late April.
Jenna Weatherred, vice president of communications for Holy Cross Energy, expressed similar thoughts and COVID-19 crisis stats for Holy Cross Energy so far.
From March 16, the day after Gov. Jared Polis forced all Colorado ski areas to close in an effort to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, through the end of April, HCE has seen a total load reduction of roughly 9% when compared with the same time period in 2019.
HCE supplies electricity to the four Aspen-Snowmass ski areas, as well as to Sunlight, Vail and Beaver Creek, so the early closures resulted in a more than 10% drop in March compared with last year. That drop has leveled out a bit since with only a 6.5% decrease over April, HCE officials reported.
Like the city of Aspen’s utilities department, HCE has seen some increase in residential energy use but not enough to make up for the commercial decreases.
HCE also will not disconnect service for non-payment during the coronavirus pandemic and is offering payment plans, along with giving a $250 credit to members having trouble paying their bills, meaning as much as $50 to help cover HCE bills each month over the next five months, Weatherred said.
“Some of our members I think are worried about calling us but we are a member-owned co-op, we’re here to serve our members,” Weatherred said. “So if members would just give us a call we really want to be there for them and to find ways to help them.”
She also mentioned that HCE did receive a federal Payment Protection Plan loan but has decided not to accept it, as it is not necessary to support the company’s operations at this time and because there are too many other organizations that need the funds more than HCE does.
Energy companies aren’t the only essential community service providers who have seen the commercial-residential demand shift during the COVID-19 crisis.
According to Mike Hinkley, district manager for Mountain Waste and Recycling, his trash and recycling operations have been “completely flipped upside down” by COVID-19.
Over the past six weeks on average in the Mountain Waste and Recycling service area from Aspen to Parachute, Hinkley said his staff has gone from picking up loads from hotels, restaurants and other commercial customers seven days a week, to just picking up when businesses call to say their bins and dumpsters are full.
This service trend resulted in an 18% to 19% drop in commercial services in the first two weeks of the stay-at-home order, and an additional 16% decrease over the next two weeks to follow, Hinkley said. Over April, there was a 32% to 33% drop in revenue and volume.
On the flipside, Hinkley said he’s seen a much larger amount of residential trash, up roughly 12% to 15%, and a huge increase in recycling, leading to extra bins and dumpsters being rolled out to certain areas.
“Everything is up residentially,” Hinkley said.
With recycling specifically, Hinkley said Mountain Waste and Recycling got to a point where its capacity to collect and transport recyclable materials to Denver was maxed out, and it had to ask for some help from the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center.
Hinkley also said that his staff has noticed more contaminated recycling, and reminded people to ensure no food or liquid residue is on the items they intend to recycle.
Overall, Hinkley said his staff is determined to continue to offer top-notch service to the Aspen to Parachute community during the pandemic and will continue to adapt to whatever shifts in demand arise.
“I look at services as essential and critical, and I see us as a critical service. The last thing we need is trash laying around with these larger health issues going on,” Hinkley said.
“The most important thing when there are extra materials, trash and recycling is to let us know and to respect the health and well-being of our critical service employees.”
While Mountain Waste and Recycling’s trends give a good valley-wide look at commercial and residential waste levels during the COVID-19 crisis, the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center trends are indicative of overall county waste.
Cathy Hall, solid waste manager at the county landfill, said construction and demolition debris — which is the largest category of waste that comes in — was down 65% from the start of the COVID-19 closures to end of April compared with last year.
Hall also said municipal solid waste, or general household trash from commercial and residential customers, was down 22%. And over the month of April, landfill revenue was down 52%.
“We’re not a tax-based operation; we run solely on our revenues,” Hall said. “We had to take a look at some programs like aggregate crushing, which we do in the spring, and push it off to the fall and are backing off of some of our education and outreach.”
Despite the revenue hit, Hall believes May will be pretty much back to normal and that the landfill will bounce back now that construction is starting to pick up again.
“We have a pretty good balance in our fund budget so we will be OK with some lost revenue,” Hall said.
“Trash and waste disposal really follows the economy. … The county is looking at our trash flows very closely because if the economy starts to slow down, people aren’t making as much money and aren’t buying as much, therefore not throwing away as much. So trash and waste disposal is a really good indicator to watch to see how the economy is doing, county wide and nationwide.”
While many Roaring Fork residents may be struggling financially and emotionally during this time, especially with recurring payments for things like utilities and rent, organizations like the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) are helping locals find a silver lining.
Through promotion of do-it-yourself energy efficiency projects, like replacing old bulbs with LED lighting, replacing air filters and cleaning coils on HVAC and refrigerator units, and taking advantage of the nonprofit’s free energy advising, CORE is working to help people save money on their energy bills by promoting sustainability and efficiency practices.
“So many people are unemployed and at home now so utility bills are going to go up,” said Mona Newton, CORE’s executive director. “We wanted to promote these projects to help with energy and money saving but also with quality of life.”
Newton said CORE, a valley nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency and sustainable energy solutions, is not doing in-home assessments but is still offering online and over the phone advising and rebates.
Newton feels promoting these services can really keep locals from seeing a huge bump in their energy bill amounts during the COVID-19 crisis, and that renewable energy and efficiency projects can assist the Roaring Fork community come out of the crisis in a mindful, more resilient way.
“As we slowly return to the new normal, how can we work to be less busy and more thoughtful about improving efficiency and keeping energy consumption low?” Newton asked, hinting at the potential of more businesses to utilize telecommuting if possible and more renewable energy to create more community resiliency during crisis.
“We (CORE) see our role as continuing our educational outreach, assessments and rebate programs so that we can help make buildings more comfortable, safe, efficient and cost effective for people as they go forward and restart.”