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The contest includes three categories — “Most energy saved per square foot” and “most energy saved per dollar spent” each pay $3,500 to the winner, with the remaining prize of $2,000 awarded for the “most innovative energy efficiency measure,” a category that doesn’t necessarily involve a large capital investment by participants.

To identify possible participants, the city used a hotel directory from central reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass, and then narrowed the field down to those properties that are on the city’s electric grid. Five hotels have signed up for the project, although Rice said the window is still open for new entrants through Aug. 1.

The city has engaged Schmueser Gordon Meyer, Inc. (SGM), a Glenwood Springs-based engineering firm, to lead the project and consult with participating hotels. Later this month SGM will perform a walk-through of each hotel to identify areas for possible energy improvement in efficiencies related to the building itself, as well as its behavioral, operational and mechanical systems. The second phase will include a utility bill analysis that examines both electric and natural gas consumption, and then compares those numbers to similar properties within SGM’s database. Using this benchmark, the hotels will be rated on a rough scale as to their relative efficiency.

Mike Suhrbier, an energy auditor at SGM, explained that the process “gives us ideas of how far the client should make upgrades, and what is cost effective to them.” He also stresses that “doesn’t necessarily mean replacing equipment, but get what’s there running at peak performance.”

Aspen Square is one the properties that has signed on to the contest, and it has recently completed a replacement of all of their interior lights with new, high efficiency LEDs at a cost of $90,000. Warren Klug, the general manager of the hotel, says it will take three years to recoup the cost, and after that the property is expected to save $30,000 per year in electric costs.

To help with the costs of capital improvements, the city has a commercial energy efficiency program that provides a rebate for businesses up to 25 percent of the project or $3,000 per year, of which $500 is provided by CORE. Additional rebates may be available through SourceGas, and CORE provides technical assistance for anyone interested in applying. The city also is picking up the tab on the energy audit to the tune of $500 per hotel. Additionally, Rice’s department maintains a program that will pay up to 50 percent of the cost, or $1,000, for an energy audit for local businesses. Funding for the contest, as well as the ongoing rebate programs, comes from the city’s utility efficiency fund that diverts a small percentage of fees from Aspen rate payers for efficiency projects on the municipal grid.

When implementing new energy technologies, cash is still king, and a solid financial return on the investment is imperative to justify the expense. For example, the Aspen Square had researched installing a solar thermal system on the roof but ultimately decided against it.

This sentiment also is shared by Aaron Shaffer, the property manager at the Limelight Hotel, which also is participating in the contest. Shaffer points to the boilers in the basement that are only four years old and 80 percent efficient. Although they could be upgraded to a new technology that is 90 percent efficient, it would be an expensive investment and the money could be spent better elsewhere to achieve a greater return.

As an Aspen Skiing Co. property, the Limelight has had the luxury of having the cash reserves to take on major projects to improve the hotel’s efficiency. Shaffer said now that “the big easy projects are done,” attention can be focused on the next tier of improvements. For the contest, he is preparing to upgrade the controls on the boilers, a $10,000 project that will take under seven years to break even. The new controls are simply an improved computer system that will slowly ramp up the boilers as needed, as opposed to firing them up to full capacity at once. Shaffer drew an analogy to “running a semi-truck when all that is needed is a small car.”

The second major energy project taking place at the Limelight includes installing occupancy sensors in the back-of-house rooms, such as offices and public restrooms. These motion sensors will turn lights on and off automatically, minimizing the use of energy.

Providing an optimum guest experience is still the primary goal of hotel operators, however; making energy efficiency improvements doesn’t have to conflict with that objective. Rice believes that hotel operators feel like their hands are tied to serve customers the best they can, but they don’t realize that they can have both benefits. Shaffer agrees with this view.

While the 50-year old-Hearthstone House hasn’t made any improvements to date, Sinta said it’s a “really cool, unique opportunity to participate in.” He is hoping to use the initial audit as a springboard for the hotel to become more efficient and let the upgrades pay for themselves.

Another participating hotel, Independence Square, is taking a similar approach in joining the contest. General manager Andre Torres acknowledges the hotel’s energy bills are fairly high due to the age of the building, and “wants them to tell me what we need to do.”

Torres already has identified several opportunities in the hotel for improvement, including upgrading the light bulbs to compact fluorescents (CFLs) or LEDs. He said one obvious opportunity is the replacement of the windows in the hotel with new double-pane windows, a project that was attempted a decade ago but denied by the Historic Preservation Commission due to the historic nature of the hotel. Instead, the hotel resorted to installing interior windows that attach magnetically to the frame and provide little additional insulation.

The remaining participating hotel is the Hotel Durant, which is hoping to do a remodel in the spring of 2013. The building joined the Aspen landscape in the mid-1960s, and still sports fittings and hardware from that era, such as electric baseboard heaters. Brian Schaefer is the general manager, and he hopes the contest will help them learn about what options are available as they begin the process of remodeling. He also hopes to use the contest “to see where we are now, and where we end up after our renovation.”

The 800-pound gorilla in the neighborhood — the Hotel Jerome, built in the 1880s — also is planning for a major overhaul, closing on Aug. 2 and reopening on Dec. 15. According to hotel general manager Tony DiLucia, the renovation will include all new energy efficient double-pane windows for the guest rooms and public areas, as well as a new HVAC system. Although the Jerome is not taking part in the contest, DiLucia said relative to the remodel, “energy efficiency is of the highest consideration on every level.” Once the building is done, he plans to step back and re-evaluate, and perhaps engage with the city at a later date.