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."