In what can be likened to a sack race toward a distant—and distinctly different—future for communities and the power they consume, the City of Fort Collins is leading the pack. Colorado’s fourth-largest city with a population of 147,000 has laid down goals for a clean energy future and then worked closely with its electric utility to get there. But it’s a race with no defined route, and with few other Colorado communities attempting to lead the way. Fort Collins is forging ahead and learning by doing.
“Fort Collins Utilities is willing to set ambitious goals, try new ideas and build partnerships in a concerted effort to transform itself into a modern utility. So far, the results are impressive,” said Howard Geller, executive director of Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. Geller has studied the utility’s energy efficiency efforts and often refers to it as a role model for others.
Located 60 miles north of Denver along the northern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University and an educated, progressive citizenry concerned about climate change and quality of life. The university alone has more than 100 professors and researchers who are dedicated to clean energy, and one of the university’s goals is to become carbon neutral by 2020. But when City Manager Darin Atteberry came on board in 2004, he felt the city—and its utility—needed to become more visionary about aligning its sustainability goals with the community’s desires and the reality of a world of diminishing resources.
“The drivers to reduce greenhouse gases, improve energy efficiency and develop more renewable energy are growing stronger,” said Atteberry.
Dedicated to performance measurement, Atteberry championed what turned out to be a five-year process of carefully defining the city’s sustainability future and goals. He hired Brian Janonis to lead a cultural shift at the Fort Collins Utilities and renewed the focus on making progress towards the City’s Climate Action Plan and Electric Energy Supply Policy. The race to the future began.
Fort Collins Greenhouse Gas and Renewable Energy Goals
The city adopted Colorado’s greenhouse gas reduction goals of 20 percent below 2005 emission levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. Also, the state mandated that 10 percent of the utility’s power supply must come from renewable energy sources by 2020. In 2009, the City updated its Energy Policy with a clear focus and explicit objectives related to energy efficiency and the previously adopted climate goals.
Greenhouse gas reduction was an ambitious goal because 100 percent of the city’s power is purchased from Platte River Power Authority (PRPA), and 68 percent of PRPA’s electricity is sourced from coal-fired power plants. Coal-fired power plants emit significant amounts of climate-warming carbon and even though PRPA’s coal plants use advanced scrubbing technologies to curtail emissions, Fort Collins knew it would have to minimize its reliance upon fossil fueled power if it was to achieve its long-term greenhouse gas goals.
Fort Collins does not control its supplier’s source of power but it held one ace: It owned its electric utility (the Fort Collins city council serves as the board of directors). An initiative entitled, A Utility for the 21st Century, was started in 2008 to address the internal cultural shift required to fully align utility staff with the city’s energy and climate action policies. Together, the initiative and policies drive the city’s efforts for efficiency, conservation, and renewable and smart grid technologies, all of which will help meet the greenhouse gas reduction goals. Annual progress reports are shared with the community on the utility’s website.
“We wanted to transform our internal culture to align with our vision and goals,” said Janonis of Fort Collins Utilities. “John Phelan, our energy services manager, has been a key part of the team to develop and implement this vision.”
When Phelan arrived in 2003, he found a traditional utility with a small number of large power generators and a one-way path from the generator to the consumer via transmission and distribution lines. He knew that would change, but the first order of business was beefing up energy efficiency in the City in order to minimize energy use and its related greenhouse gas emissions.
Energy Efficiency in Fort Collins Has Saved Enough to Power 10,000 Homes
Phelan knew that simple energy efficiency programs that focused upon education and technical assistance had been in place since 1982. But since 2004, the new objectives of the City’s Energy Policy have driven continuous development and expansion of efficiency programs. Now, 10 staff at Fort Collins Utilities deliver a wide variety of “best practice” energy efficiency programs for residential and commercial customers, most of which are detailed along with a case study of Fort Collins in a recent report, The $20 Billion Bonanza: Best Practice Electric Utility Energy Efficiency Programs in the Southwest.
Between 2002-2011, the utility saved 83,000-megawatt hours of electricity through efficiency, enough to power 10,000 homes in Fort Collins for a year. Efficiency also helps Fort Collins residents and businesses pay among the lowest utility rates in the state.
“City and utility leaders believe that efficiency should remain a cornerstone of our long-term energy policy,” said Phelan. “It is our lowest cost, lowest risk option for energy supply, and it helps us transition to the clean and renewable energy opportunities that emerging technology is bringing to the marketplace.”
Exploring the Utility of the Future
But beyond efficiency is a whole new utility system that takes in power as well as delivers it. In order to realize its ambitions to embrace that new model, the city needed an entirely different, “distributed,” or smart grid, power system, one that would allow electricity to flow in multiple directions from wherever it is generated in the system. Therefore, a home with excess solar capacity on the roof, for instance, could feed power into the grid for use by someone else. The university could fire up its backup natural-gas-powered generators and feed extra electricity to utility lines on peak power demand days.
"If you were to ask me what our utility is going to look like 20 years down the road, I’d tell you that we don’t know the details but it’s going to be a whole lot different than it is today,” said Phelan.
Fort Collins Experiments with a Zero Energy District
A group of key stakeholders in the community, including the university and Fort Collins Utilities, wanted to demonstrate how renewable sources of energy at the consumer end of the transmission system could be coordinated with energy efficiency to reduce peak demand for electricity (peak demand is a concept similar to rush hour traffic: Instead of adding new lanes to highways, or building new power plants, you try to reduce use).
With the go-ahead from city leaders, the utility has embraced what Phelan calls “a big, hairy, audacious goal” to try to achieve net zero energy use in a real-life experiment which encompasses the CSU campus and the commercial section of historic downtown as the guinea pig. Dubbed FortZED, it is an ambitious project to demonstrate a transformed electric system, leading the way towards a smart grid.
The utility led a partnership that won a $6.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to fund a three-year project as part of FortZED. The project used energy efficiency, demand side, supply side and renewable energy resources in an experimental integrated system. “It was a research and development project, but it was live and connected to the grid, not isolated in a laboratory,” said Phelan.
Along with energy efficiency pledges by residents and retrofits of commercial buildings there, the project inventoried all of the sources of power—renewable or otherwise—within the FortZED zero energy district and developed control systems for the energy exchange (see sidebar for lessons learned).
FortZED Leads to Another Opportunity
FortZED led to an invitation to join Rocky Mountain Institute’s eLab (Electricity Innovation Lab), which brings together a diverse group of innovators from throughout the electric utility sector. With eLab, Fort Collins now is part of a larger team of stakeholders who are in the race and learning together, piece by piece, how the “distributed” power generation system of the future will work in real life.
“eLab is exploring activity and innovation of the future power grid, which will be happening on the fringes of the utility system, at the point where the current utility system stops at the meter. On the other side of the meter, you have energy efficiency, renewable energy, storage systems like electric vehicles or hybrid car batteries,” explained Steve Catanach, Fort Collins Light and Power Manager. “These are dynamic systems that need to be scaled up in a massive fashion and the people at eLab are trying to figure out how that might work,” Catanach said.
FortZED is the first project being explored by eLab members. The group will contribute to the next generation of innovation, dubbed FortZED 2.0, which will explore—after efficiency—how utilities will meet the remaining demand for electricity with a dynamic, integrated energy demand system. Catanach said that advanced meters and e-Lab are foundational to those developments.
Fort Collins is providing every residence in the city with an advanced, or “smart meter,” which can send and receive information back and forth between the utility and homeowner. In the future, a customer will be able to receive an email or text from the utility on a hot summer day, offering discounts or incentives if the customer will adjust the temperature upward on their air conditioner or downward on their hot water heater. If the customer is at work, she will be able to use a computer or iPhone to adjust those appliances back home and bank some savings. The utility saves money because it doesn’t have to buy electricity at peak power prices. The new meters and integrated web tools will provide detailed electricity and water usage information to customers with which they can manage both their use and bills.
Efficiency, Technology and Human Behavior
When it comes to advancement in energy efficiency, “technology grows new low-hanging fruit,” said John Phelan, Fort Collins Utilities Energy Services Manager. For instance, LED lights are becoming available which work well in places where now “traditional” CFLs do not. Advanced efficiency built into ENERGY STAR® appliances and smart thermostats also help people save energy.
In 2009, FCU partnered with a company called OPower for a three-year trial run of OPower’s Home Energy Reports program. They picked a sample of 25,000 “pilot” households in the city and a similar “control” group, then provided the pilot homes with reports that compared their electricity use to similar homes, customized energy savings tips, and feedback on progress over time. The messaging and game element of the feedback inspired people to lower their energy use by 2-3 percent said Phelan. The success of the program inspired the utility to expand the reports in 2013 to all residential customers.
Early on, FortZED project managers built partnerships with the city, utility, university, Larimer County, business and community groups. They identified and coordinated sources of power that could be used to help the utility meet peak demand without having to buy more power from the city’s supplier, Platte River Power Authority.
What developed is a cooperative system that works like this: On a hot summer day when air conditioners are sucking massive amounts of electricity from the grid, the county courthouse will turn off its large courtyard fountain, the university may fire up its emergency natural gas generators (the generators are required to be fired up for 20-hour test runs every month anyway), and the city’s iconic New Belgium Brewery will switch its bottling line to onsite renewable power. The project proved how these resources could operate seamlessly together with the traditional utility grid.
One part of FortZED didn’t work so well. Called the Community Energy Challenge, the initiative asked customers to pledge to reduce energy use with easy, medium and hard tactics by using existing utility programs for energy efficiency and conservation. The grassroots effort included a neighborhood competition. Over two years, FortZED received more than 2,000 pledges, but without a robust data collection plan it could not document measurable savings. Organizers are working to ensure that pledges can be a sustainable grassroots model.
Electric Vehicle (EV) Deployment Project
Fort Collins was selected in a national evaluation process by the Electrification Coalition as a deployment community for mass-scale electric vehicles. The Coalition, based in Washington, D.C., is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group of business leaders committed to the deployment of electric vehicles on a mass scale. As a selected community, Fort Collins will be one of the first in the country to develop all aspects of the electric vehicle ecosystem in a coordinated effort to increase adoption of electric vehicles by consumers and commercial fleets in the region within the next few years.
One critical piece of the project is ensuring that Fort Collins Utility has enough electric capacity to add EVs to the system. One EV uses about the same amount of electricity as an air conditioner. On the flip side, a car battery may feed electricity back into the power grid in the future.
“It would take very high adoption rates to challenge our existing infrastructure, and if we are seeing those rates coming on, then there would be enough time for us to figure out what to do,” said Steve Catanach, Light and Power Manager for the utility.
Other pieces of the system that Fort Collins will develop include building code standards for public and home charging stations, marketing the benefits of EV ownership, and creating awareness of state and federal incentives that make the cars affordable.
Efficiency Supports Economic Development
In an innovative collaboration that marries incentives for energy efficiency with economic development, the City of Fort Collins and its utility are bringing new companies and jobs to the community.
In 2010, Avago (formerly Agilent Technologies) faced either onsite expansion or relocation. Tiana Smith, Fort Collins Utilities’ Commercial and Industrial Accounts Manager, helped to develop an overall economic incentive package that included targeted efficiency funding totaling $170,000. The Avago expansion added more than 90 new local jobs. The company has since committed to additional expansion of wafer fabrication facilities in Fort Collins from facilities that are in Asia, “in-sourcing” rather than outsourcing like most companies do these days.
Joanne Holmes, commercial property manager for Carrington Company, manages a 63,000-square-foot office building in Fort Collins’ Oak Ridge Business Park. In 2012, she faced losing the building’s major tenant, a federal agency whose lease renewal was tied to federal requirements for building efficiency. With Fort Collins Utilities’ technical assistance and rebates, Holmes embarked upon a $1 million upgrade of lighting, heating and air conditioning, and plumbing that will transform the 1988 building to LEED Silver certification—and keep the federal tenant.
For more information download the Fort Collins plan at, Utilities for the 21st Century and Energy Policy Annual Updateor review best practice utility programs and their benefits to communities, as well as a case study of Fort Collins Utility at, www.20billionbonanza.com.
Suzanne Pletcher is Director of Communications for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), where she works to share SWEEP’s marketplace analyses and support proactive public policy. Maureen Quaid is SWEEP's Senior Associate focusing on utility DSM and other strategic initiatives. She has worked for more than 20 years in energy efficiency, renewables, and behavioral approaches to clean energy adoption, mostly for nonprofits and government agencies. Learn more at, www.swenergy.org.