Growing Green

Aspen's Innovative Ways to Address Climate Change

From renewable energy initiatives and hefty monetary incentives to forward-thinking design and inspired activism, local efforts to conserve resources reach far beyond our valley.

By Catherine Lutz May 30, 2019 Published in the Summer 2019 issue of Aspen Sojourner

Image above: A worker from the Keeling Curve Prize–winning Savory Institute, which teaches holistic agriculture practices worldwide to help restore grasslands and soils. Photo courtesy Keeling Curve Prize

The Roaring Fork Valley has long been fertile ground for pioneers and influencers in promoting clean energy and, more recently, addressing climate change. Take, for instance, experimental physicist and Snowmass resident Amory Lovins. After an article he’d written arguing for an economy based on renewables and efficiency influenced President Jimmy Carter’s energy policy, Lovins cofounded the Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982. The Basalt-based organization works toward achieving his vision of a new kind of energy economy, with hundreds of clients worldwide.

Since then, a lot more has happened. Here, we showcase five local entities (believe us—it was hard to narrow down the field) that have not only been leading the way in sustainability efforts, but also promise to do so into the future.

City of Aspen

When the city’s electric utility reached 100 percent renewable energy sourcing in 2015—making it only the third US city to achieve that milestone—it marked, in a way, a return to Aspen’s pioneering clean-energy roots. In 1885, the burgeoning mining camp had been the first city west of the Mississippi to employ hydroelectricity, and until around 1960 the tumbling waters of Aspen’s mountain creeks remained the main source of municipal power.

Fast-forward to 2005, when Aspen again took the lead with one of the country’s first local programs to address global warming. Today, climate action plans are common, and more than 90 other US cities are aiming for a 100 percent renewable energy supply. Drawing on Aspen’s experience in this challenging arena, in 2017 the city published the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Toolkit, a resource of some 200 steps municipalities can take to reduce their carbon footprints.

“When we have the resources to create something, we should be sharing it,” says Ashley Perl, Aspen’s climate action manager. “We need things that are replicable—that’s where a lot of our wins are going to be.” So far, some 30 cities are using the toolkit.

The local focus is now shifting from energy supply to demand. Beginning with large commercial and multifamily buildings, the city is exploring how to reduce energy consumption. One proven method is to track energy use over time: communities that track and report their consumption have been able to decrease it and save money on energy bills. In the city’s latest climate action plan, Perl notes, this type of benchmarking offers the greatest potential for greenhouse gas reductions from commercial buildings.

Solar panels help power Aspen’s water treatment facility and offices, reflecting the city’s commitment to renewable energy.

Community Office for Resource Efficiency

When it comes to spreading the love of renewable energy, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) is like the valley’s fairy godmother. For 25 years, this unique nonprofit—funded through the world’s first-of-its-kind carbon fee, known as the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program—has been doling out grants, rebates, home energy assessments, and plenty of guidance to help people, organizations, and projects save energy and cut carbon emissions.

As of this writing, CORE has served nearly 6,000 customers, for an annual savings of more than $3 million in utility bills and nearly 23,000 metric tons in carbon emissions. Governments in Snowmass Village; Carbondale; Ketchum, Idaho; and Teton County, Wyoming, have since followed the lead with similar carbon fee programs.

CORE Executive Director Mona Newton acknowledges that widespread, voluntary energy greening can be a challenge. “That’s why we’re appealing to people’s core values,” she says (pun intended). “Most of us are in the valley because we appreciate the natural environment, and we want to protect it. We want snow to ski on, clean air to hike in, and we want our kids and grandkids to experience the same thing. That’s our call to action.”

But CORE doesn’t operate in a silo. It’s part of nearly every local conversation on clean energy, sponsoring trainings for the building industry and serving as a valued resource for local government policymakers looking to produce climate action plans and green building codes. The nonprofit also likes to get involved with new projects at the ground level, if possible. One recent highlight is Basalt Vista, a 27-unit affordable housing development for teachers and other local workers that resulted from a partnership between Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley, the Roaring Fork School District, Pitkin County, and the town of Basalt; CORE granted $100,000 to make the project the first net-zero neighborhood—one that produces as much energy as it consumes—in rural Colorado.

“Net-zero buildings like Basalt Vista are where we really need to go,” says Newton.

The Basalt Vista affordable housing community will be rural Colorado’s first net-zero neighborhood. 

Keeling Curve Prize

Jackie Francis had embarked on her master’s degree in climate science at Johns Hopkins University when it occurred to her that humanity already has all of the solutions for climate change. “Why are we not implementing them when this is such an important issue?” says the former director of the Aspen Science Center and cofounder of AREDAY, Aspen’s renewable energy summit. “It’s not like dark matter—it’s our atmosphere and the oceans, which we completely understand.”

In summer 2017, shortly after President Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord, Francis successfully pitched part-time Aspenite Mike Klein on a proposal to finance an award for clean-energy innovation. The resultant Keeling Curve Prize awards $250,000 annually to 10 projects around the globe that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It was the best way Francis could think of to amplify existing solutions.

Named for the scientist who invented the carbon-dioxide measurement system that helps document climate change, the prize does not seek silver bullets. It’s more of a shotgun approach or, as Francis prefers to say, like seeds from which many solutions can grow. Awarding funding in five categories—including energy access and social and cultural impacts—the Keeling Curve Prize is the only known philanthropic award for climate solutions. Winners of the inaugural prize last year include a company that produces biofuel in Kenya from invasive water hyacinth plants, a youth-driven US nonprofit that works to introduce legislative carbon-pricing bills, and the manufacturer of a fish-friendly, modular turbine for lower-impact hydropower projects.

“The whole idea is to show people what’s possible,” says Francis, who wants to grow the prize to include regional awards. “But we also want to shake the money tree to get more funding into this space.” 

The solutions that the Keeling Curve Prize funds may be national and international in scope, but Francis, an Aspen native, gives a lot of credit to where the idea has taken root. “We have this amazing population of intelligent, passionate, connected people in town,” she says, “so I think a lot of the very fast acceleration of how this prize is developing and growing is due to whom I meet here and the connections I can make.”


An employee of Chemolex, which won a 2018 Keeling Curve Prize for producing biofuel for Kenyans, conducts market research.

Green Line Architects

Steve Novy spent a lot of his youth traveling and living abroad, including a student year in France and three years in Japan after college. Experiencing how most people around the world live and work in small spaces greatly influenced the environmental design major’s career path.

“I learned a lot about how we can think about space more efficiently and be in a better position to work through some challenges we have,” says Novy, founder and principal of Green Line Architects in Carbondale. “We [Americans] are energy hogs.”

Noting that buildings account for 40 percent of fossil fuel use in the US, Novy counts himself among a set of architects who are “very committed to tackling issues of resource availability, the pollution we create, and the sustainability of buildings.”

The Green Line Architects–designed, solar-powered mobile dairy sits behind a herd of water buffalo. 

Focusing on energy-efficient, future-conscious design and viewing themselves as community stewards have led Green Line’s team to some unique projects. For instance, project architect Isaac Ellis devised a one-kilowatt solar electricity system to power a mobile dairy for local water buffalo rancher Jose Miranda. Green Line also designed an all-electric, renewable-energy home in Carbondale that will house Aspen Center for Environmental Studies educators; as it’s being built, the firm is cohosting, with CORE, free walk-throughs and a discussion series so the public can learn about various green building techniques. (The next one will be June 11.)  

In a departure from thinking small, Green Line put its smart design skills to the test on Habitat for Humanity’s 40,500-square-foot ReStore in Glenwood Springs. The result: a solar-powered, LED-lit structure framed with insulated steel panels that’s so efficient it saves $24,000 annually in energy costs.

And later this year, Green Line intern Hannah Juul will set off for college and live in an über-efficient tiny home she’s designed. “She’ll influence her peers, showing other kids that there are great ways to design for the future and great ways to adapt,” says Novy. “It creates hope for all of us.”


The Aspen Skiing Company’s Give a Flake marketing campaign asks its audience to take action.

Aspen Skiing Company

A couple of interesting things happened after SkiCo released its latest marketing initiative last fall. Titled Give a Flake, the campaign seeks to galvanize people on the issue of climate change via a website with a list of potential actions and through magazine ads that included prepaid postcards addressed to three moderate Republican senators, urging them to do more on the issue. One of those senators, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, wrote an open letter in response to the more than 3,000 postcards she received, defending her climate action. Outside magazine then countered with an article that, in summary, argued she wasn’t doing enough. 

The dialog that played out publicly accomplished two of SkiCo’s goals. “A big part of this is bringing climate to the fore as a national social issue,” says SkiCo Senior Vice President of Sustainability Auden Schendler. “And creating political consequences for inaction.”

Through its own operational greening, longtime lobbying on environmental issues, and previous campaigns touching on climate change, SkiCo has earned its voice—and a seat at the table—on the topic. With Give a Flake, the company took an extra step: actively involving its audience. In harnessing public sentiment, SkiCo may have found an effective way to wield its power.

In March, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Murkowski, held its first hearings in several years on climate solutions, and Murkowski co-authored an op-ed professing her commitment to the issue. Schendler doesn’t claim that Give a Flake was responsible, but he does think SkiCo is onto something. The company is working on the next iteration of the campaign, and “it will be more aggressive,” he says.

An even bigger opportunity, however, may be taking root. In February, a group of kids at Alaska’s Alyeska ski resort decided to run their own campaign, handing out Give a Flake stickers and pins to employees and guests and making signs about climate action to hang in the day lodge. This led to the idea of spreading the campaign through other resort partners, which would accomplish yet another of SkiCo’s goals for its green actions: to be big and replicable.

Says Schendler, “If Give a Flake were adopted by other resorts, it would transcend our brand and become a platform for climate action in the industry, and that would be really cool.”  

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