Sustainability Blog

In August 2015, the City of Aspen, Colorado joined Burlington, Vermont and Greensburg, Kansas as the third city in the United States to operate entirely on energy from renewable sources.  

Their energy portfolio includes hydroelectric, wind, solar and landfill gas according to Aspen’s Utilities and Environmental Initiatives Director David Hornbacher.  Aspen’s transition took place over the course of three decades thanks to a great deal of planning by city officials.  The final transition from approximately 75% to 100% renewables occurred with the signing of a contract for wind energy with the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska.  Four wind farms in South Dakota and Nebraska now generate energy for Aspen in addition to the substantial generation of hydroelectric power from local reservoirs.  

Motivation for such an ambitious power plan came from the nature of Aspen as a tourist destination, dependent upon reliable snowfall for skiing in winter and a temperate climate for hiking, rafting and fishing in the summer.  Travel, hospitality, tourism, and real estate comprise the majority of business conducted within the city.  City officials and citizens recognize the long-term fiscal challenges climate change poses to their city; therefore, in an effort to address global warming, Aspen created the “Canary Initiative” in 2005.  This initiative was named after the “canary in the coal mine” adage and is demonstrative of the vulnerability Aspen feels in the face of climate change.  Utilizing 100% renewable energy to power the city is only part of the larger GHG reduction strategy by Aspen.  The action plan created by the Canary Initiative sets greenhouse gas reduction goals for the city at 30% under 2004 levels by 2020 and 80% under 2004 levels by 2050.  

Pivoting the energy supply of an entire city toward renewables can be a difficult proposition in the short term given the long-term utility contracts signed by many cities.  As seen with Aspen, such a move could take several decades to implement, even with strong support and most cities are reasonably wary of such a drastic shift.  However, the transition may be justified in the face of an uncertain future for sourcing energy from fossil fuels and renewable energy sources experiencing the largest growth in the energy sector.