Pitkin County’s renewable energy coffers are running dry, and the Aspen City Council is considering picking up the slack in funding the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), the local nonprofit tasked with reducing carbon emissions. 

The primary funding source for CORE comes from a carbon-fee program in Aspen and Pitkin County. The Renewable Energy Mitigation Program (REMP) requires that property owners who install energy-sucking amenities such as snowmelt driveways and heated pools offset those carbon emissions by either installing renewable-energy systems or paying a fee. 

Aspen and Pitkin County each have a REMP program and have historically funded CORE equally. But as more builders in the county turn to onsite renewables, there’s a growing discrepancy in the funds. By the end of this year, Aspen’s REMP fund is expected to have more than $4 million, while Pitkin County estimates there will be about $600,000 in its account. 

At a meeting Monday night, Aspen City Council members voiced support for meeting CORE’s full funding request for 2021, as part of what they called a “transition year” for the nonprofit. 

“All along, it’s been CORE’s mission to self-destruct,” council member Ward Hauenstein said during the meeting. “As they’re successful in decreasing energy usage, the REMP fund is going to go away.” 

Hauenstein and other City Council members say that while Aspen should fully fund CORE in 2021, the nonprofit needs to spend that year re-evaluating its programs and revenues. Council members also suggested absorbing the nonprofit into a city department. 

REMP fees made up more than 90% of CORE’s budget in 2020; the nonprofit received $1.33 million in REMP fees from Pitkin County and the same amount from Aspen’s program. In 2021, the city is likely to contribute $1.4 million, with $200,000 coming from Pitkin County. 

CORE uses revenues from REMP to fund many of its grant programs, which support renewable-energy projects throughout the valley. CORE executive director Mona Newton says such projects — including the installation of solar PV systems on schools or on affordable housing — wouldn’t happen without the support of the nonprofit.

Fees from Pitkin County’s portion of REMP are likely to continue to decline because of recent changes to the building and energy codes; beginning in July, paying the REMP fee is a “final resort,” allowed only in certain scenarios where it’s not feasible to install renewable-energy systems. 

“It’s a paradox,” said Newton. “We want these buildings to be built better, but this is a funding source that allows all these projects to get done.”

A home with a solar photovoltaic system in Snowmass Village. As more builders in Pitkin County choose to install onsite renewable energy, funding for the CORE is dwindling. Credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

Building upgrades needed to reduce emissions

Buildings contribute more than half of the greenhouse-gas emissions in the Roaring Fork Valley. Experts agree that building codes that require homes to be both more energy efficient and to use renewable sources are important, and longtime CORE board member Bill Stirling says Pitkin County is leading the way to net zero in the valley. He participated in three years’ worth of meetings and planning sessions to develop the recent updates. 

“It’s like we were writing our death warrant for CORE, but that’s what has to be done,” Stirling said. 

But the code updates apply only to new residential buildings and major remodels, which leaves an extensive stock of inefficient homes. 

An analysis completed by CORE estimates that there are 47,000 homes in the Roaring Fork Valley that are unlikely to be upgraded without the incentives that CORE provides. 

“All that housing stock is in need of being upgraded,” Stirling said. “How the hell are we going to do that?”

“It feels really urgent” to find new funding sources, Newton said. “Even if we spent every single dollar from the REMP funds, we need more, because we need to get existing buildings to net zero.” 

CORE explores new funding options

REMP has been a reliable source of funding for decades. As long as people in Aspen and Pitkin County want luxuries such as snowmelt driveways and heated pools or spas, the nonprofit has been able to fund renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects to more than offset those emissions. 

The recent code changes apply only to residential building in Pitkin County; Aspen has not changed its requirements for either residential or commercial construction.

Cindy Houben, Pitkin County’s community-development director and a member of CORE’s board of directors, says it’s not clear how the nonprofit’s revenues will be affected. 

“There will still be a handful of large payments to CORE,” Houben said. “I don’t think CORE’s going to go belly-up in the next couple of years.” 

But, she said, the program still needs a more sustainable funding source. 

Newton said CORE is looking at a wide range of funding sources and is in the initial stages of discussing a local carbon-offset program. This would mean paying a cost per ton of greenhouse-gas emissions and applying those funds to renewable-energy projects elsewhere. 

“It would be a verified carbon offset that you could buy for your travel or your home, and then those funds would go to a verified project that would not have otherwise happened,” Newton said. “It has to have additionality, has to be verifiable, and it has to be trackable.” 

Such a program would probably be voluntary, at least initially, and could take years to develop. In the meantime, Newton said, CORE has limited reserves and is working to generate other funding sources.

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that collaborates with The Aspen Times and Aspen Public Radio on coverage of environmental issues. This story ran in the June 9 edition of The Aspen Times. 

Elizabeth Stewart-Severy is a freelance journalist based in Snowmass Village. She grew up in Aspen and has worked as an editor at Aspen Journalism, reporter at Aspen Public Radio and an English and journalism...