Representatives from cities and counties across Colorado gathered in Vail last Thursday to discuss ways of making their communities greener, more energy efficient and more willing to embrace a sustainable future.

“We are unique because we connect sustainable technologies with people who can make them work,” said Anu Ramaswami, PhD, director of the University of Colorado Denver Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Systems (CSIS), who led the workshop. “We make the theoretical practical.”

Ramaswami, whose center is helping communities document and reduce their carbon footprints, displayed a chart showing that the majority of greenhouse gases in a typical city, about 34 percent, are generated by commercial buildings. She noted that certain ingredients in concrete, like fly ash, could dramatically reduce this. She also said only 33 percent of the coal burned in power plants actually produces electricity and the rest is simply wasted.

Sustainability officials from Vail, Montrose, Lakewood, and Telluride along with those from Eagle, San Miguel and Ouray counties discussed the challenges and potential solutions in moving toward more energy efficient communities.

In wealthy towns like Vail and Telluride, huge second homes often sit vacant for months at a time sucking up electricity. Many have heated driveways that use even more energy. There are restaurants in Vail that serve fresh sushi, flown in daily, which puts more carbon emissions into the air. In other cases, food must be trucked in from hundreds of miles away.

Some cities and towns are giving away energy efficient light bulbs and low-flow shower heads. They are promoting local food consumption and commercial composting while trying to persuade homeowners and landlords to weatherize houses. Still, they all report some difficulty in generating public interest.

Ramaswami has gone out with volunteers around Denver knocking on doors and offering free energy audits. But most of the time people didn’t want audits or even free light bulbs.

“Nationwide there is only a three to six percent participation rate in energy audit programs,” she said.

Mail in campaigns have been more successful with as many as 50 percent of people responding in one case. There has also been success is getting people to install power meters inside their homes so they can observe their electrical consumption. In some instances, homeowners have saved between 10 and 20 percent on their energy bills.

Each community taking part in the workshop came up with new ideas and policies to implement in the year ahead.

Joshua Phair, senior manager for public affairs & government relations for Wal-Mart, spoke to the group about the company’s conservation efforts. Wal-Mart has given $90,000 to CU Denver’s sustainability program over the last two years.

The National Science Foundation gave a $3.2 million grant to the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program (IGERT) which provides experts to CSIS and helps develop sustainability strategies.

“This is a perfect example of making the theoretical relevant to the real world,” said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League who attended the workshop. “It’s a great example of a partnership between higher education, business and cities and towns.” 

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