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As communities face climate change, CORE and CLEER help them transition to clean energy

Ryland French, Regional Climate Strategy Advisor with CORE (right), and Aspen Art Museum Facilities Director Vince Hart (left), take a tour of the museum’s heating and cooling systems during a winter energy assessment in 2023. Energy assessments are required under the Building IQ ordinance that was passed by Aspen’s city council in 2022.
Daniel Bayer
Courtesy of CORE
Ryland French, Regional Climate Strategy Advisor with CORE (right), and Aspen Art Museum Facilities Director Vince Hart (left), take a tour of the museum’s heating and cooling systems during a winter energy assessment in 2023. Energy assessments are required under the Building IQ ordinance that was passed by Aspen’s city council in 2022.

Transitioning to renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency is a crucial part of addressing climate change. But climate scientists and advocates say that the transition can be complicated, especially in communities that rely on oil, gas and luxury tourism.

In the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys, two local nonprofits are working to help communities overcome these barriers and make the shift.

The Basalt-based Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) works with homeowners, businesses and local governments to help make their buildings more energy efficient.

The nonprofit provides energy assessments as well as grants and rebates for projects like weather insulation, solar power and new heating and cooling systems.

The Carbondale-based Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER) does similar work to reduce energy consumption and costs across western Colorado.

They also focus on improving public transportation — and help drivers and transit agencies switch to electric vehicles.

CLEER manages programs for Garfield Clean Energy, a coalition that includes local governments in Garfield County as well as Colorado Mountain College (CMC) and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA).

Both CLEER and CORE also advise on local policy changes and energy code updates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Aspen Public Radio sat down with CORE Board Chair Katie Schwoerer and CLEER Executive Director and co-founder Alice Laird to find out more about their current work.

The conversation below has been edited for clarity and length. 

Kelley Cox
Courtesy of CLEER
Students gather outside of Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale in 2014 to celebrate their newly installed, 385-kilowatt solar array. Carbondale-based nonprofit CLEER helped facilitate the student-led solar project, which now powers 100% of the high school’s annual energy use.

Eleanor Bennett: Alice, let's start with you. CLEER's main focus is on transitioning to a clean energy economy, and I'm wondering, what does that look like for you guys? Especially your work in Garfield County where a lot of the county does rely on oil and gas for its livelihood.

Alice Laird: It's a tough issue definitely, and thanks for raising the issue. One of the founding concepts behind Garfield Clean Energy was to address the economic aspect. We try to help people save energy so they can cut on energy costs, and also we try to stimulate the demand for jobs relating to implementing clean energy solutions. In terms of barriers, there are parts of Garfield County and government entities within Garfield County, especially in the western part of the county, where a significant portion of their public revenue is derived from property tax or severance tax or lease funding from the oil and gas industry. And when you have a school district that has a significant portion of their public funding coming from that source, it's definitely a challenge. And one of the things we've been trying to do is raise awareness of that issue and also raise awareness that the Colorado Office of Just Transition is currently just focused on coal communities and we are trying to work toward advocating that oil and gas regions also be included.

Eleanor Bennett: And Katie, I know a lot of CORE's work, not all of it, is based more in the upper valley in Aspen and Pitkin County, where there’s a lot of tourism and luxury homes. What are you seeing at CORE in terms of barriers and solutions to transitioning to that clean economy?

Katie Schwoerer: CORE provides an opportunity for those homeowners to engage with us and obtain an energy efficiency audit. And through that audit, the homeowner can then determine actions that they want to take to become more energy efficient, and then CORE can provide an incentive through rebates. We're also engaged with the city of Aspen in what's known as a ‘Building IQ’ ordinance that passed in 2022. And that's working with business owners and multi-unit homes to start tracking their energy use so that they can make changes. Simply knowing your energy use can reduce your consumption by 2 to 3% before you even start taking action, like putting in heat pumps or changing out your insulation and light bulbs. And then one of the things that CORE, and I think CLEER as well, are trying to address in this transition is that we need a workforce that is able to empower our citizens to make the changes that they want to in their homes. And so CORE will be working with CMC to start engaging electricians and others to be able to effectively make these changes in our homes.

Courtesy of CLEER
CLEER Transportation Program Manager Martín Bonzi (right), helps local resident Gabriela Jimenez (left) set-up her new e-bike at the Third Street Center in Carbondale on June 19, 2023. As part of its new eBikeThere program in Garfield County, CLEER distributed 40 e-bikes to income-qualified residents, who were required to attend an in-person training session and track their riding data.

Eleanor Bennett: Climate equity is also something that's very important to both your organizations and you've been working to improve. And I'm wondering, can you tell us a little bit about how you're working to make these programs more accessible to everyone in our community?

Alice Laird: Absolutely. So CLEER is addressing, or has been working to make it much easier for all of Garfield County, Parachute to Carbondale, all the different towns to tap practical clean energy solutions to cut energy costs. Before Garfield Clean Energy (GCE) was founded, we would look around and see that typically urban areas or communities with far greater resources had wonderful programs that homeowners could tap into to cut their energy expenses. So the whole concept of GCE is founded in the concept of “green for all,” for lack of a better word, that wherever we live in Colorado and many rural regions in particular, we need greater access to the tools and the solutions and the resources to make it easy to make these changes. So we put a great deal of emphasis on a countywide program called ReEnergize, which is helping low- to moderate-income individuals. All kinds of people, especially in a very expensive region, struggle with energy expenses. And so through a whole variety of partners, including Excel Energy and Holy Cross Energy, we're trying to make it very easy for all kinds of households to cut their energy costs. We also help local governments that have resource challenges cut their energy costs as well.

Eleanor Bennett: And Katie, how about you guys over at CORE? What kinds of initiatives have you figured out to address this?

Katie Schwoerer: CORE certainly is making an effort to have greater awareness and participation for communities that might need additional assistance. In 2023, 40% of our funding has been allocated to community priority participants, which includes those that are in affordable housing, nonprofit workers and essential workers, and we are trying to really prioritize their needs. And again, like Alice was saying, sometimes they have extraordinarily high energy costs and that impacts their way of living. So we're focusing on that and we actually have a $100,000 grant from the Department of Energy that's helping us work with the town of Snowmass Village to address some of their affordable housing.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Representatives from CORE, Pitkin County, Holy Cross Energy and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office take a tour of abandoned coal mines that are leaking methane in the Coal Basin area near Redstone on Sept. 30, 2021. CORE has been conducting research on the quantity and quality of methane that's being released from the old mines and expects to wrap up its data collection by the end of October 2023.

Eleanor Bennett: Both CORE and CLEER also have some exciting experimental projects in the works. Katie, can you start by giving us the latest on CORE's work to help mitigate methane that's been leaking out of the old Coal Basin mines above Redstone?

Katie Schwoerer: Yeah, I'd love to. Coal Basin is a really exciting and innovative project that CORE took on about two years ago. There's been a lot of interest and funding because methane has the capacity to be 83 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years. So this is an excellent opportunity for our communities, specifically Pitkin County, to address this emitter of a significant amount of carbon. And so the White River National Forest approved a permit for CORE to conduct research and determine both the quantity and quality of methane that's being leaked out at Coal Basin. We've received $1.2 million from the federal government. And once we have our data, which will be finalized this month, CORE will be able to establish its next steps and where we're going to take this project.

Eleanor Bennett: And Alice, CLEER also has an exciting new project coming up. Can you tell us a little bit more about the geothermal, ground-source heating project in Carbondale?

Alice Laird: Absolutely. CLEER was one of four rural communities in the country that was just awarded a geothermal design grant by the Department of Energy. The concept is that over the next year, we’ll work with the National Renewable Energy Lab and a local team led by Jon Fox-Rubin to design a geothermal heating and cooling system that's part of a net-zero energy district in Carbondale. So the zero-energy district includes the Third Street Center where CLEER’s offices are located, the Roaring Fork School District teacher housing, the library building, Bridges High School and the whole neighborhood in Carbondale. And over the next year we're designing a geothermal, ground-source heating system that would provide low-cost heating and cooling in a district concept. And it's especially important because it provides a way to reduce the natural gas component of heating those buildings and so we're very excited to work on this project.

Courtesy of CLEER
CLEER staff (right) present a grant to Holy Cross Energy CEO Bryan Hannegan (center) to help fund the purchase of a hybrid-electric maintenance truck outside the utility’s headquarters in Glenwood Springs on April 19, 2023. CLEER manages the statewide Colorado Clean Diesel Program, which gives grants to businesses to help offset the cost of replacing their diesel machines —such as construction equipment, trucks, and even snow groomers —with all-electric or hybrid-electric models.

Eleanor Bennett: My last question for both of you is, looking ahead to the future, what kinds of big systemic changes do you think are needed in our community to really address greenhouse gas emissions?

Alice Laird: There are three main areas that I see as a huge opportunity and they connect both practical, you know, near-term change, but also relate to systemic change. The one I’ll focus on here is relating to transportation; statewide, transportation accounts for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. And it's very critical for the whole state and our region to find innovative ways to address greenhouse gas emissions and transportation. And so it's a major opportunity and a major challenge. And this region already has an amazing transit system. RFTA is already a key part of cutting emissions in this region. There's so many people that travel here and it's the first time they visit a bike- and walk-friendly community, whether it's Carbondale or Glenwood Springs or Aspen. And it's the first time that they take transit frequently. So people will come here and not have to use a car. And I just think that we need to continue to push the envelope on low-carbon transportation. And we do a lot to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles and we're helping with charging infrastructure and we're so aware it's just one piece of the puzzle. We need to work as a region to continually advance bike- and walk-friendly communities, and advance all the different alternatives to driving alone. And it requires systemic change because it does require individual communities to take action. There's a whole variety of code and zoning and land-use issues, so that's systemic change. And I just think it’s such an important and overlooked piece of the climate protection puzzle.

Eleanor Bennett: And Katie, do you want to add anything on what needs to happen from CORE's perspective?

Katie Schwoerer: Yeah, I think it's also really important to acknowledge the regionalism and that we need to engage collectively and politically. We need to not be afraid to reach out to our political figures, especially our local governments, and let them know that we need immediate change and that we are a progressive community and that those are our expectations. And reaching out to organizations like CORE and CLEER, that empower individuals to make change because waiting for our governments can seem very discouraging, but individual action is necessary, it matters. CORE and CLEER are here to help individuals make significant meaningful and measurable change.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and "Morning Edition" anchor. She has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, creative efforts to solve the valley's affordable housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.
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