Fort Collins’ Clean Energy Economy Powers Ahead with Jobs, Innovation, and Savings

Fort Collins is a pragmatic community with a penchant for excellence. It is renowned as a bike-friendly college town and one of the most prolific microbrew hubs in the country. It also happens to be one of the more interesting places in the world to watch community-based energy transformation take shape.

Already an internationally recognized leader for its path-breaking FortZED zero energy district project, the city is now exploring ways to accelerate its greenhouse gas emissions goals by as much as twenty years through a combination of greater efficiency in buildings and transportation and renewable electricity supplied from wind and solar power.

Following an e-Lab design charrette that brainstormed options for revised city-wide energy and carbon emissions goals, the city’s municipal utility invited Rocky Mountain Institute to analyze the costs and benefits of achieving 80 percent emissions reductions by 2030. Like many other cities, Fort Collins’ current goals call for greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced 80 percent by 2050. Shifting the goal to 2030 would put the city at the forefront of cities globally that have made commitments to achieve a clean energy future based on local solutions. Drawing on detailed, sector-based energy modeling tools developed for RMI’s Reinventing Fire analysis and subsequent work with states and communities around the country, RMI’s analysis team took on the challenge of taking a “fresh eyes” look at the economics of transforming Fort Collins’ energy economy on a fast track. The results, based on open-source, peer-reviewed assumptions and methods, are available in a report released publicly on the eve of a recent City Council work session to discuss updating the city’s climate goals.

The report concludes that Fort Collins could reduce energy use in buildings by 31 percent through cost-effective efficiency measures, reduce energy use in transportation by 48 percent, and achieve a carbon neutral electricity system by 2030, all at a net economic benefit to the community. Taking into consideration a conservatively estimated “cost of carbon” of $22 per ton (“a penny a pound”), the accelerated goal would mean $260 million net present value in energy savings and reduced energy costs to the community by 2030. By 2050, the accelerated scenario could result in a total net benefit of $2 billion compared to business as usual.

The accelerated carbon reduction scenario represents a fundamentally different paradigm for investment in energy-related assets and infrastructure, providing greater local job creation, economic development, and stimulus for innovation. By investing now in efficiency and renewables, the city can reduce outflows of cash for decades to come while increasing local investment in efficiency, distributed solar power, and smart grid technology by $20 million per year. This shift in investment—from distant to local resources—would generate an additional 400–500 jobs annually over the entire period to 2050.

A combination of factors makes Fort Collins a community that can take the lead in forging forward-looking energy policies for local benefit. These factors include strong and pragmatic civic leadership, manageable size, an innovative and well-positioned municipal utility, workable options for transportation policy, and low-cost options for clean and affordable electricity supplies. Accordingly, it is no surprise that Fort Collins’ innovative energy programs and policies have attracted the attention of utilities and policymakers from around the country. By stepping forward to pioneer new approaches, Fort Collins has galvanized support of community leaders and attracted the participation of leading businesses and other institutions in the area. The rest, as they say, is history…or the future.

Image courtesy of Barbara Tripp /