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.

WAPA customers excel in energy competition

The Georgetown University Energy Prize You are leaving WAPA.gov. is making WAPA feel like parents of talented children who are playing the same sport but are all on different teams. We know there can be only one winner but we are rooting for all of them and, of course, we are as proud as we can be of their accomplishments.

Among the 50 communities competing are WAPA municipal customers Fort Collins and Aspen, ColoradoYou are leaving WAPA.gov. and Palo Alto, California. The three cities are now in the semifinalist stage of the multi-year competition to reduce their electric and gas consumption in a sustainable and replicable way.logo-large250aspenenergychallenge400

To enter the contest, each community submitted a long-term energy-saving plan with commitments to policies and projects by residential associations, governments, institutions or businesses in the community. In the fourth stage, beginning January 2017, finalists will be selected for their energy-saving performance over the previous two years. The criteria also include innovation, potential for replication, likely future performance and program accessibility for all residents. The judging panel will choose the winner from this group to receive a $5-million prize to use to further their community energy plans.

Motivations beyond money
WAPA customers competing for the prize have a track record of designing successful energy-saving programs and engaging customers. It makes sense that they would put that experience to work to earn a $5-million prize to further their efforts, but there are other reasons for competing, too.

It is all about the data for the city of Aspen, acknowledged Utilities Efficiency Specialist Ryland French during his presentation at the Rocky Mountain Utility Efficiency Exchange. “The information we collect will be normalized based on weather, population and other factors,” he explained. “It will give us an aggregate look at community energy use that we didn’t have before.”

Fort Collins Utilities has been pursuing aggressive energy efficiency and greenhouse gas mitigation goals for several years now, and the ramped-up time scale of the competition provided an excuse to pilot new innovative programs. “We are coming at it from a research perspective,” said Project Manager Katy Bigner. “It gives us another way to drive greater community involvement in achieving our Climate Action Plan.”

Get community involved
Since both cities already had active programs for reducing energy use, it made marketing sense to rebrand the competition with a local name. “We wanted to leverage community pride,” said French. “Highlighting the competition with other cities helped to create enthusiasm.”

So the GUEP became the Aspen Energy Challenge You are leaving WAPA.gov. in Aspen and Lose-a-Watt You are leaving WAPA.gov. in Fort Collins.

To its established foundation of energy coaching, home audits and rebates, Aspen added outreach tailored to specific community segments. Program promotion material for home audits pictured city residents who had actually received the assessments, allowing customers to see that their neighbors were participating. A school district-wide retrofit project of lighting and controls became a teaching tool and turned students into advocates for energy conservation.

Working with the Poudre School District has been central to Fort Collins’s strategy, as well. “We’ve focused on small education programs, because when you get kids excited about something, they run home and tell their parents,” said Bigner.

The city also enlisted a sorority from Colorado State University for a “Porchlight Campaign.” Sorority sisters walked through neighborhoods making note of homes that had incandescent bulbs in their porch fixtures. The students would talk to the homeowners and offer to replace the conventional lights with compact fluorescent lamps.

More than one way to tell story
Outreach is a challenge for all utilities, whether competing for a multi-million dollar prize or just trying to get customers to sign up for a new demand response program. Aspen and Fort Collins pursued some proven strategies, like engaging students, but used the competition to experiment with different approaches too.

For Aspen, success came from taking a simple message and spreading it through as many avenues as possible, appealing to many different motivations. When a promotion offering residents a free Nest thermostat was “leaked,” only two people called. However, when the offer was officially announced in the city’s email newsletter, 30 homeowners called before 9 a.m. to get their Nest.

The free home energy assessment program was another offer that didn’t take off until the second announcement. “The first time we promoted it was before the Aspen Energy Challenge branding,” French recalled. “We put the offer in community partner e-newsletters and from mid-March to May 2015, only 50 people signed up for audits.”

By August 2016, when the city offered the second round of free home energy audits, the Aspen Energy Challenge was well established. The offer appeared in the competition’s dedicated newsletter, as well as, newspaper and radio ads, on the Energy Challenge website, posters, social media, local television, events and more. “We talked generally not just about saving energy and money, but also about being green, joining the community, competing for the Prize, comfort, health and safety and tech trends,” said French.

Customers claimed all 25 free audits in only seven days, so Aspen continued to promote audits at the regular incentive level of $100 after the rebate. “We had enough traction in the community that there were 24 more sign-ups over the last three weeks of August,” he said. “They were attracted by the free offer, but continued to participate after the free audits ran out.”

Fort Collins decided to come up with a marketing campaign that differed from the one it had used prior to the competition. “We are not only testing out innovative programs, we are looking at different ways to market them, too,” Bigner said.

A sociologist the utility consulted had done research that indicated people find open-ended calls to action confusing. “When you say, ‘turn down your thermostat,’ people don’t really know how much they need to make a difference,” she pointed out. “The marketing campaign is focused on taking specific steps to cut down on energy use, and then moving to the next level.”

The contest website provides visitors with an interactive chart that categorizes actions as easy, medium or advanced, and includes steps for renters and home owners, different home systems and appliances. For example, easy steps for lighting include turning lights off when not in use and replacing conventional incandescent bulbs with one of the newer, high-efficiency options. Advanced measures include buying large appliances, installing solar thermal or photovoltaic systems and investing in building shell upgrades. The chart indicates measures for which rebates are available.

Creating competition between businesses has paid off for the utility. Although the contest does not count energy savings by business customers, businesses can compete with each other to see how much energy their employees can save at home. Lose a Watt created the Workwise Challenge to get local businesses within the city limits involved. Employees install a Home Conservation Kit the program supplies, and then tell their stories on the website. Participating businesses earn recognition and employees have the chance to win prizes. The strategy has resulted in an 86,000 kilowatt-hours in savings.

Some things work
As the end of Stage 3 of the competition draws near (Dec. 31), contestants have had time to evaluate some of their strategies and draw a few conclusions.

Working with school districts was a success for both utilities, showing once again that it is never too soon to reach out to tomorrow’s consumers.

Affordable housing energy upgrades proved especially successful in Aspen, a resort community with a large demographic of seasonal workers. “We were able to do 400 units in only a couple of months. The key was focusing on the process and working with the city council and county commission,” French recalled.

The utility matched the upgrades with outreach to tenants and landlords. “Seasonal tenants can’t be expected to know what 0 through 5 on a radiator dial means in terms of actual temperature, or what to do if the solar thermal system on a unit isn’t working,” French said. “To maintain the gains from the upgrades, we had to educate the people who lived in the buildings and managed them.”

In addition to the success of the business competition, streamlining its energy-efficiency upgrade program for homeowners has been a success for Fort Collins. “We walk the customer through the whole process from audit to completion,” said Bigner.

Others, not so much
Having a chance to pilot new ideas and find out more about what makes consumers tick has been a frequently cited motive for participating in the Georgetown University Energy Prize. The participating utilities already have lessons under their belts, some a surprise and others not.

Aspen is a city of large vacation homes and those homeowners are an especially tough audience for a message of energy efficiency. “We have tried promoting the competition through the food and wine festival, peer pressure, talking about savings and reaching out to property managers. No luck,” French admitted.

He added that Park City, Utah, another competitor with a similar demographic profile, was having the same problem.

Given the number of young consumers in the college town, Fort Collins thought the Joule-Bug gaming application might be a good way to engage customers in saving energy. “It turned out to be good for only about a year,” Bigner noted. “It required too much effort to sustain over the two years of competition.”

Enlisting energy leaders to promote the competition through social networking was another strategy that ultimately offered to little savings for the effort it required, she said.

Crowdfunding to help a low-income customer make home efficiency improvements was another idea that didn’t pan out. “We raised only $200 to help a single-mother schoolteacher. But I think that approach might still be successful for a nonprofit or faith- based organization, for example,” Bigner observed.

After the finish line
Whoever wins the Georgetown University Energy Prize, the participants can look forward to gaining solid data about their customers’ energy use, along with a clearer idea of what drives customer engagement.

After being judged for their performance in Stage 3, the selected finalists will submit a report on how their programs supported the community’s plan and how they can be applied to longer-term strategies. “We expect to be able to learn plenty from the other participants,” said Bigner.

While a $5-million prize would be great—especially if a WAPA customer wins it—the lessons that come from the competition may well be the greatest prize, and consumers and utilities alike will be winners.