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Pushing the reset button on Aspen’s Canary Initiative
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Pushing the reset button on Aspen’s Canary Initiative

The Elks Building in downtown Aspen. Reducing the energy used in Aspen's commercial core is one goal of the city's new director of the Canary Initiative. (Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)
The Elks Building in downtown Aspen. Reducing the energy used in Aspen's commercial core is one goal of the city's new director of the Canary Initiative. (Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)
It’s been one month since Ashley Perl became the new director of the city of Aspen’s Canary Initiative, and she plans to breathe new life into the little yellow bird.

From its inception in 2005, the program has aimed to reduce the Aspen community’s carbon footprint. The Canary name likens Aspen’s role as a mountain town in an age of climate change to the canary in the mineshaft, warning miners of danger.

Perl, a five-year veteran of the city’s environmental health and sustainability department (where the Canary office is now located), plans to broaden the Canary mission from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to also preparing the city and the region for the realities of climate change. The 30-year-old Perl refers to this new, related mission as “resiliency planning” or “preparedness planning.”

“We’ll continue to reduce greenhouse gases but we also need to realize that we need to prepare for a different future because of greenhouse gases,” Perl said. “As the climate changes, which it will, how are we as Aspen — as a community and as a city government — going to adapt?”

Answering this question necessarily includes all kinds of scenarios posed by the climate-prediction models available to city staff members — changing snowfall, water availability, vegetation, wildfire, and all the social and economic effects that ecological fluctuations could bring.

“Does West Nile virus suddenly show up here, and do we need to account for that in our staffing?” she asked hypothetically.

The resiliency planning effort, identified as a future possibility in the city’s 2007 Climate Action Plan, hasn’t been carefully spelled out yet, but City Council has made global-warming preparedness a top-10 priority for 2014. She envisions a collaborative endeavor with other valley governments.

“It’d be ideal to go Aspen to Glenwood, but if we could even get the upper valley — Aspen, Basalt, Snowmass, Pitkin County — that would be a win,” she said.

Still, she added, reducing emissions remains the primary Canary goal. The city aims to lower community-wide greenhouse-gas production 30 percent by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. According to Perl, Aspen has made some progress but not enough.

“We’ve reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent from our 2004 baseline,” she said. “We wanted to be at 11 percent by now, in order to be on track.”

The city’s recent efforts to produce renewable, carbon-neutral energy through hydroelectric and geothermal have both run into problems. Voters rejected the idea of a hydro plant on Castle Creek in November 2012, and geothermal test wells so far don’t look promising for large-scale heating or electricity production.

“Local geothermal is not part of the mix, based on what we’ve found,” she said. “And we’re not including Castle Creek in our estimates of how we get to our goal.”

But Perl is undaunted, and looks forward to creating new emission-reduction strategies in cooperation with local utilities, businesses, homeowners and other community partners.

A review of the city’s 2011 greenhouse gas emissions inventory made it clear where she needs to focus. In that report, ground transportation represented 43 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas output, and electricity consumption was the second largest at 28 percent.

“These are our two biggest pieces of the pie,” she said. “These are where we will put the majority of our time.”

Perl confessed that she needs to study the transportation sector, and that she finds it a bit “overwhelming.” Already the area has one of the state’s best public transit systems, and Aspen has car-share and bike-share programs to help reduce emissions, so she’s unsure what comes next.

But she’s upbeat about the prospects in the area of electricity generation and consumption, partly because other local people and organizations are already focused on the issue.

First, Aspen’s municipal electric utility is already providing 70-80 percent renewable power, and aims to be 100 percent renewable by 2015. In cooperation with the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska, the power wholesaler that provides much of Aspen’s electricity, Aspen will soon purchase more clean, hydroelectric power from a low-impact generation project near Ridgway, Colo.

Aspen’s electric utility is also working on the demand side of the equation, offering energy assessments to homeowners and business owners, and then advising them on ways to cut consumption through lighting, weatherization, thermal control and refrigeration upgrades. Especially when it comes to lighting, Perl said, rebates are available through the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) to help property owners reduce the up-front costs of energy-saving technologies.

Similarly, Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy, which supplies many Aspen-area homes and businesses outside the downtown core, is also expanding its portfolio of renewable power sources. And Holy Cross too works with its residential and commercial customers to promote energy efficiency.

“Our big commercial users are using the most (electricity), and there are so many rebates and incentives and resources available to them,” she said.

Perl wants all city residents and business owners to know that the Canary Initiative, CORE, Aspen Electric and Holy Cross are available to help consumers reduce their energy bills and make those efficiency-oriented improvements as cheap as possible. Every time a home or business reduces its energy consumption, the Canary Initiative takes another step toward its emission-reduction goals.

It’s clear to Perl that the notion of reducing Aspen’s carbon footprint is fundamentally collaborative, and she needs participation from business and community groups of all kinds in order to succeed. As one of the staff members behind the Aspen Tap program and the city’s ban on plastic grocery bags, Perl is well-versed in community outreach.

“I’m going to start being out in the community a lot more,” Perl said. “Canary has kind of taken a back seat in the past, it’s been hard to find us. But here we are in City Hall, come visit, we’re here for you.”

Alongside these opportunities, Perl also has a list, three or four pages long, of emission-reduction ideas from the Aspen Global Warming Alliance, or AGWA, that she needs to study and prioritize. AGWA’s members include the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, the Aspen Global Change Institute, the Aspen Skiing Co. and other environmental players, and the panel acts as a sort of Canary steering committee.

“My next step will be to create some sort of vetting or matrix system for all these projects,” she said.

Perl’s annual budget is $188,000, for two and a half people and basic materials, supplies, training, outreach and programming. Perl will reach full staffing when she hires a researcher/analyst to help her pore through the mounds of data that emissions reduction and climate modeling entails.

With that analyst’s help, she plans to prioritize the list of AGWA ideas according to their cost, feasibility and emissions-reduction potential. Then she’ll share her observations with the City Council. At that point, around the new year, she’ll decide, along with the city’s governing board, where exactly to invest taxpayer dollars in the name of carbon reduction and climate preparedness.

“I came to Canary with a lot of policy experience and a lot of experience bringing groups together to get things accomplished,” she said. “It’s a new challenge to do more long-term planning and get the community involved in where Aspen wants to go.”

Aspen Journalism is an independent nonprofit news organization working in the local public interest and publishing at www.AspenJournalism.org.
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