Fargo wins energy prize, Fort Collins takes second place

After nearly three years of competition, the Georgetown University Energy Prize You are leaving WAPA.gov. (GUEP) announced the winners, and the top honors go to cities served by WAPA customers. Fargo, North DakotaYou are leaving WAPA.gov. took first place, receiving a prize package that includes support toward $5 million in financing for an energy efficiency dream project. Fort Collins, You are leaving WAPA.gov. the only Colorado city to advance to the final round, came in second.

Over the course of the competition, Fargo reduced its overall energy consumption by more than 172 billion Btu, to rank fourth among the 50 semifinalists’ overall energy scores. In the final round, the judges evaluated the 10 top- performing cities and counties on their energy-saving approach, performance and prospects for nationwide replicability and scalability.

Accepting the prize on Dec. 18, from left: eFargo Fellow Dylan Neururer; Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney; NDSU assistant professor of architecture Malini Srivastava; Cass County Electric Cooperative CEO Marshal Albright; Technical Lead Peter Atwood and Uwe Brandes, executive director of the Georgetown University Energy Prize. (Photo by Kim Hyatt / Forum News Service)

Lose-A-Watt,” You are leaving WAPA.gov. as Fort Collins dubbed its two-year energy reduction campaign, saved the community more than 160 billion BTUs of energy and reduced carbon emissions by 34,436 metric tons. The contest targeted electricity and natural gas use by residential and municipal and K-12 sectors.

Multi-faceted competition
The beauty of GUEP is that it gave America’s small- to medium-sized towns, cities and counties a way to rethink how they use energy. To reduce their energy consumption, the communities:

  • Implemented bold new local policies on energy-transparency, energy-savings and clean energy technology.
  • Conducted deep data mining of their energy use and community infrastructure.
  • Focused on increasing energy efficiency in neighborhoods with high energy use in all income brackets.
  • Created novel financing mechanisms to enable their residents to invest in new energy upgrades.
  • Used radically unique approaches to change behavior and help communities rethink their energy-use habits, including gamification and the latest methods in social science research.

Starting in April 2014, communities across the country applied to participate and filed detailed long-term plans once accepted into the competition. From January 2015 to December 2016, semifinalists competed to reduce their utility-supplied energy consumption in a way that might yield continuing improvements in their own communities and could be replicated by others.

Judges selected the finalist communities in 2017, based on energy saved during the two-year period. The winner was selected by combining those results with scores in weighted categories, including innovation, potential for replication, likely future performance, equitable access, community and stakeholder engagement, education and overall quality and success.

Teamwork creates success
Fargo’s program was built on a partnership between the city, North Dakota State University You are leaving WAPA.gov. (NDSU) and the utilities Xcel Energy and Cass County Electric Cooperative You are leaving WAPA.gov. (CCEC). Putting together a team where each party brings a particular expertise to the table was critical to Fargo’s success, said Malini Srivastava, an assistant architecture professor at NDSU. “The university researched and designed the projects to lower energy use, the utilities supplied data for benchmarking and the city provided the communication network to engage the citizens,” she explained.

CCEC had recently installed an automated metering infrastructure that collects data in up to 15-minute intervals. Having a clear picture of electricity use by homes, apartments, schools, park districts and municipal buildings proved to be very beneficial in moving the project forward. “The meter data definitely increased the likelihood of Fargo winning the Georgetown University Energy Prize,” said CCEC President and CEO Marshal Albright.

Engaging online, in person
Srivastava, the project lead for NDSU, created another important piece of the city’s strategy, eFargo. The web portal engaged the community with games and a narrative. “Gaming made saving energy fun and easy to understand,” said Fargo Planning Director Nicole Crutchfield. “eFargo was a great way to educate students and the general public about energy efficiency.”

The website attracted more than 300 participants to play the open game during eight weeks. The school game was even more successful, with more than 1,500—mostly students—participating over a six-week period. “We challenged local schools to defeat the Waste-a-Watt character by using their knowledge about energy and creativity,” Albright said. “The schools competed to reduce energy consumption over six weeks. Fargo’s Roosevelt Elementary won the challenge, reducing the school’s energy consumption by 29 percent.”

Getting school children involved was the most effective outreach, Crutchfield noted, but engaging citizens at libraries, public events, churches and other faith-based groups also paid off. Local experts in energy production and distribution joined the advocacy effort, forming the Citizens’ Local Energy Action Network—CLEAN—to advocate for renewable energy and evolving technologies in transportation.

Upping their building game
Another project that helped secure the top honor was designing affordable “passive houses” Fargo hopes to develop in partnership with a builder. NDSU architecture students researched and designed four high-performance homes. “The students did professional-level work, and I think it was educational for them to watch the city work through the permitting process,” Crutchfield said.

Other initiatives included providing financial assistance to low-income homeowners for weatherization and to preserve existing housing stock in the city’s older neighborhoods. Fargo also adopted and is actively enforcing the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code. The city hopes to keep working with NDSU on coming up with creative ways to reinforce our housing stock. “That is one possible use for the prize,” Crutchfield said.

Words matter
The city of Fort Collins, a long-time leader in municipal sustainability, used the GUEP competition as an opportunity to hone some existing programs and strategies and to test new ones. Fort Collins Utilities (FCU) and the city’s Environmental Services led a campaign built on climate action goals that are already reducing the community’s environmental impact.

One particular area of success, according to Fort Collins Sr. Environmental Planner Katy McLaren, was in tightening up and lightening up the language in outreach material. “We built our messaging around specific actions and limited seasonal campaigns to three actions,” McLaren said.

Social science-based marketing approaches informed the Lose-a-Watt campaign but the website avoided utility jargon to engage visitors with lighter, more fun language. Those lessons will be incorporated into the city’s future marketing and outreach campaigns, noted McLaren. “I think other utilities could benefit from looking at how we framed the efficiency actions, as well as the use of lighter language in messaging,” she added.

Many ways to save
The Lose-a-Watt website provided Fort Collins residents with a variety of options for taking action to reduce their energy use, some established and some launched for the competition. Homeowners could make home performance upgrades with Efficiency Works Neighborhood, a pilot program that streamlined the utility’s rebate process for efficiency improvements. “FCU moved it to full program status and will continue to refine it going forward,” McLaren said.

Volunteers for the Lose-a-Watt Porchlight Campaign went door to door, offering to replace incandescent bulbs in porch lights with a free LED bulb.

Volunteers for the Lose-a-Watt Porchlight Campaign went door to door, offering to replace incandescent bulbs in porch lights with a free LED bulb. (Photo by city of Fort Collins)

Residents who were inspired to volunteer could join the Porchlight Campaign. Volunteers visit neighborhoods around the city to see what type of light bulbs homes have in their porch light fixture. If a home’s porch light has an incandescent bulb, volunteers offer to replace it with a free LED bulb.

The Workwise ChallengeYou are leaving WAPA.gov. got the business community involved in the competition by giving businesses free home conservation kits to hand out to their employees. The business with the most employees installing kits received prizes and recognition. Utility representatives used the challenge as an opening to introduce commercial customers to ClimateWise, the city’s free, voluntary program to help Fort Collins businesses reduce their environmental impact.

Some things work, some don’t
As with Fargo, Fort Collins found engaging students to be the “biggest bang for the buck.” Poudre School District worked with the city to present the Voltbusters education program for K-3 grades. “The kids take the information home to share with their parents, and the parents are much more interested because their kids are into it,” McLaren echoed Crutchfield’s observation.

The Voltbuster Challenge enlisted Poudre Valley students to save energy. Both GUEP winners said that getting children involved in a program is an effective way to reach parents.

The Voltbuster Challenge enlisted Poudre Valley students to save energy. Both GUEP winners said that getting children involved in a program is an effective way to reach parents. (Photo by city of Fort Collins)

Gaming—specifically a gaming app created by Joulebug You are leaving WAPA.gov.—was less of a success for Fort Collins. “It would probably have been more effective if we ran it for one year, instead of two,” McLaren said.

Overall, maintaining the community’s level of engagement for the duration of the competition proved challenging, McLaren acknowledged. The fact that Georgetown University struggled to keep its dashboard updated with progress reports did not help, she said.

Worth effort
Both cities saw the competition as a positive experience that gave them permission to experiment with new ideas and pushed them to communicate more with residents about energy use.

Srivastava agreed with Albright about the importance of having detailed energy-use data to measure programs. She is currently preparing a report on the competition to present at a conference in the spring, and is looking forward to sharing Fargo’s lessons with other cities. Perhaps the greatest lesson the Georgetown University Energy Prize winners learned, said Srivastava, is that, “Small cities shouldn’t be afraid of trying new ideas.”

WAPA congratulates Fargo and Fort Collins on their creativity and initiative, and we look forward to seeing how they build on their success.

‘Co-ops in the Classroom’ teaches kids about public power, energy use

Electricity is as much a part of life as reading, writing and arithmetic, so it makes sense to teach about it in school, something East River Electric Power CooperativeRedirecting to a non-government site does with “Co-ops in the Classroom.”Redirecting to a non-government site

East River Education and Outreach Specialist Jennifer Wolff (left) enlists the teacher to demonstrate electrical potential with a Van de Graff generator for the fifth-grade students at Groton Area School. East River member system Northern Electric Cooperative scheduled the presentation. (Photo by East River Electric Power Cooperative)

East River Education and Outreach Specialist Jennifer Wolff (left) enlists the teacher to demonstrate electrical potential with a Van de Graff generator for the fifth-grade students at Groton Area School. East River member system Northern Electric Cooperative scheduled the presentation. (Photo by East River Electric Power Cooperative)

Through its members, the generation and transmission co-op offers the program free to school districts in its service territory in eastern South Dakota and western Minnesota. The curriculum teaches students at every grade level about electrical safety, generation, energy efficiency and conservation. It also offers an opening to talk about cooperative business and the value of cooperation.

In the past year alone, Education and Outreach Specialist Jennifer Wolff has visited 79 schools and delivered 110 presentations. “A real testament to the program is how many teachers reach out and request to have us come back,” Wolff observed.

Flexible lessons
Wolff created “Co-ops in Classrooms” five years ago to supplement “The Story Behind the Switch,” a school program its wholesale power supplier, Basin Electric Power CooperativeRedirecting to a non-government site, provides to its members.The Basin program is tailored mainly to the fifth grade level, but “Co-ops in the Classroom” offers a more flexible curriculum that East River members can customize for any grade level.  

A Montrose Elementary student pedals hard to light up a display for Jennifer Wolff during a presentation arranged by Southeastern Electric Cooperative.  (Photo by East River Electric Power Cooperative)

A Montrose Elementary student pedals hard to light up a display for Jennifer Wolff during a presentation arranged by Southeastern Electric Cooperative. (Photo by East River Electric Power Cooperative)

In its first incarnation, “Co-ops in the Classroom” had four separate modules: safety, energy efficiency & conservation, generation and economics. Over time, the separate programs merged into one presentation, which Wolff varies depending on the audience and the school’s needs. “With hundreds of presentations under my belt, I usually have a pretty good understanding of what will or won’t work well for a particular audience,” said Wolff. “For example, with middle school students, I tend to present in more of a ‘game show’ type format. High school students do well with activities where they can be broken into smaller groups. Early elementary students require lots of ‘ooh and ah’ moments to hold their attention.”

Wolff has presented the program to all age groups, but it seems to be most popular with the fourth- and fifth-grade crowd. “This is my favorite age group to present to,” she admitted. “They are old enough to really understand the concepts, still easy to impress and eager to participate.”

Member systems take lead
The program was designed to be a relationship builder for its member systems, so Wolff likes to be accompanied by a co-op representative when she gives the presentations. The local representatives might talk a little bit about their job at the co-op and answer questions after the presentation. Linemen are particularly effective, she added, because they can show off safety equipment and tools, and have more “street cred” when talking about the dangers of electricity.

Requests for presentations that focus specifically on safety are common. Last year, FEM Electric AssociationRedirecting to a non-government site asked for a safety presentation aimed at high school students after some teenagers were involved in a couple of near-contact incidents while helping on a farm. FEM worked with Wolff to schedule the presentation at high schools throughout the system’s service territory.    

Each distribution cooperative works with local schools a little differently to schedule presentations. Wolff makes it easy by blocking off days in her calendar so the co-ops can offer the schools a choice of days. “Basin takes theirs to nine states so they require a longer lead time for scheduling,” Wolff pointed out.  “I do have periods that are scheduled quite tightly, but I can usually fit in a last-minute request for a presentation if one arises.”

The member systems also take the lead on promoting the program to their customers with a little help from marketing letters and flyers provided by East River. Coverage in local publications has helped to spread the word about “Co-ops in the Classroom.” In some cases, word of mouth is enough to stir up interest among teachers who are always happy to have a state content-approved science lesson.  

For community, for children
As valuable as the energy and science lessons are, each presentation makes a point of emphasizing safety. There is no way to guess what incidents might have been avoided by showing students how electricity moves or explaining the dangers, not just of power lines, but substations, pad-mount transformers and even household electric outlets. “If even one life has been saved by safety education, that’s a benefit you can’t quantify,” Wolff declared.

“Co-ops in Classrooms” is not about achieving measurable goals, after all.  “The program is another way for our distribution systems to show their support and commitment to their communities,” said Wolff. “Often, parents of students in the classes are members of the co-ops, and the schools may be members too. And, it is a great opportunity to educate the next generation of potential members and employees about cooperatives.”