Founded in the gold rush, Fort Collins, Colo., seeks another in energy efficiency

FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- For the last few years, this northern Colorado city (population 160,000) has been reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and growing its businesses at the same time. Since 2005, its population has risen by 13.5 percent, but emissions have dropped by 14.7 percent. Last year's drop, according to the city, was the equivalent of taking 71,000 passenger cars off the road.

How can a city do this? Within the last six weeks, experts from Russia, India, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Japan have come here to find out. They were primarily interested in the city's latest experiment, which was to cut the electricity use in its downtown business district by 20 percent on hot summer days with no noticeable decline in activity or comfort.

"If we've found the magic juice," explained Bruce Hendee, who bears the title of Fort Collins' chief sustainability officer, it has been connecting the city's biggest employer, Colorado State University, along with the business community -- a growing assortment of companies including 10 breweries -- to a community action plan that focuses on people, aggressive environmental goals and profit.

The other major university town in Colorado, Boulder, has used a climate tax and smart meters to prod people into reducing emissions (ClimateWire, Oct. 20, 2009). In Boulder, home of the University of Colorado, living a greener lifestyle has become one of its mantras.


Nearby Fort Collins, founded during the heady gold rush days of the 1850s, sees another sort of green in what it's doing. It is trying to attract companies that can cut emissions, increase jobs and enlarge the tax base.

"The DNA of our community is to meet our climate and energy and sustainability goals in this framework of economic development," said Judy Dorsey, president of the Brendle Group, an engineering consulting firm that advises the city on its planning.

The basic idea is to present businesses with some "high-impact, high-value projects where they can come in and play. It's like a sandbox," she added. "We use that word a lot."

The biggest "sandbox" in Fort Collins is located in an old brick, fortresslike building called the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory. It was a former city-owned coal-fired power plant that sat abandoned and ignored. In 1988, Bryan Willson, a newly arrived professor of mechanical engineering, discovered it. "There were 4,000 windows; half of them were broken. There was no heat, no bathrooms. It was a very crude facility."

Luring customers with a smarter grid

What it did have, Willson noted, were high-voltage power lines connecting it to the local utility. Willson, worried about getting tenure at the university, wanted a laboratory where he could do "unconventional" testing on big power systems. The university insisted the laboratory had to pay its own way. Willson brought in companies that operated natural gas pipelines. They hired him to develop more efficient engines that could compress natural gas.

One result of these experiments was that a company donated a large electricity generator that operated on natural gas. Now the laboratory could make its own juice. Denmark came to it with a problem. It had increasing amounts of wind power coming on its grid, but when the wind stopped, there were frequent blackouts because central power stations often weren't quick enough to readjust supply with demand.

The laboratory spun off a company, Spirae, and built a futuristic, computer-driven test bed that could simulate the operations of a large power grid and instantly adjust for power fluctuations caused by the often fickle nature of renewable energy.

While there has been much talk about getting a smart grid, the grid that exists outside the lab isn't quick enough by itself to rebalance inputs and outputs from a variety of different power sources. "Don't call them smart," warned Sunil Cherian, the CEO of Spirae. "Today we have very little information about how our system operates. We don't even know if someone has an outage until they call."

The lab's more agile model grid could do the rebalancing almost as quickly as electricity moves, at the speed of light. Called "BlueFin," it attracted customers who wanted to tinker with it. Some were interested in "islanding," using it as the backbone for an alternate power grid that could sustain itself with emergency generators and large amounts of solar and wind energy if and when the central power grid went down.

Among the entities interested in that were the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. DOE awarded Fort Collins a $6.3 million grant to show how it could drop the energy consumption of the city's downtown business district by 20 percent by connecting emergency generators, solar arrays and a variety of other backup systems including a few electric cars.

Experiments of the 'Great Connector'

Willson, realizing that both the city and the university had committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, convinced both of them that the experiment, called "Fort Zed," would help. He also lured in some downtown businesses.

"Bryan Willson is a great connector and leader. He got us involved in Fort Zed," explained Bryan Simpson, a spokesman for New Belgium Brewing, which makes craft beers including its leading brand, Fat Tire. The brewery had been working on energy-saving projects of its own, including running power generators on methane produced by bacteria digesting wastewater from the brewing process.

That, plus a solar array on the roof of the brewery's bottling plant, meant New Belgium could cut its electricity demand by half and still keep pumping out beer.

All this and more were plugged into Spirae's test bed for the Fort Zed experiments, which took place on several days in July and August. Michael Randall, maintenance engineering supervisor at Colorado State University, had worked with Spirae technicians to rewire all the campus air conditioning systems so their fans could be dropped down to 40 percent of their normal electricity use with the flip of a switch. Although summer temperatures hit 90 degrees, "we didn't have any complaints," he explained.

The university missed its 20 percent reduction target the first day but hit it on the next test, turning on emergency generators and using solar power from big rooftop arrays. It plugged in big machines at night to make ice, using it to help cool some buildings during the day. "We plan on expanding this on our own," explained Randall, because the university is interested in saving money by cutting higher electricity prices charged during peak demand times.

Playing with a smart building

Kathy Collier, who manages a city program called ClimateWise, said 350 local businesses have signed up for a program to reduce their energy, water and garbage every year. "We benchmark them," she said. The city requires them to account for resulting savings. The program has raised its goals three times in four years, largely because businesses are comparing notes with each other on how much money can be saved.

There will likely be more businesspeople coming to Fort Collins. The city and the university are talking about a second round of Fort Zed tests, bringing in more solar and wind power and cutting the city's vulnerability to an electricity outage even lower. Spirae, which ran the tests, has attracted a new partner, Boeing, to sell its grid operating system to the military. The Pentagon wants to have the ability to "island" military bases so they can continue to operate when central grid systems go down.

Some cities, including New York City, which suffered massive power losses from Superstorm Sandy, are also looking for ways to create islands of essential activities with their own power, so blackouts can be resolved more quickly.

As for Willson, the "Great Connector," he isn't through. He's raised private funds to erect a commercial building that will rise next to his energy lab starting this month. It will have state-of-the-art heating, cooling and lighting systems.

Buildings use roughly a third of the energy consumed in the United States, and there are often legal and economic barriers between landlords and tenants that keep energy use high and efficiency measures low. Willson wants to change all that with his new building, which will be thoroughly green. But it will also allow people to come in and tinker with different operating systems and then measure the financial results.

He describes it as a "playground for operators of commercial buildings."

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