Ritter praises Rifle for sustainable development projects
RIFLE — Seemingly everywhere you turn these days in the Rifle area, solar projects are popping up in quantities that rival the natural gas drilling rigs dotting the horizons.
This city at the center of Garfield County’s natural gas fields and the region’s come-and-go oil shale industry has been pushing hard to promote itself as an alternative-energy hub as well. It also has been focusing on further diversifying its economy by pursuing sustainable development projects downtown.
The accomplishments to date of the city — and more broadly the clean-energy undertakings of communities through Garfield County — were celebrated Thursday at an event headlined by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who initiated programs that helped make them possible.
Local officials praised the role Ritter played, but he said places such as Rifle have themselves to credit for the state’s decision to get involved in their sustainable community initiatives.
“It was because of what was already going on in Rifle,” Ritter said.
In April, Ritter announced Rifle was one of four communities in the state chosen to kick off the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative. It’s aimed at helping communities overcome challenges such as vacant storefronts and aging buildings to achieve long-term downtown stability and prosperity.
Later in the year, the federal government chipped in a total of $1.28 million in funding for the four communities’ projects.
Ritter said he has been impressed by the desire of a city so tied to a traditional, boom-and-bust-oriented extractive-energy industry to want to diversify and create an economy that sustains itself for decades to come.
The city has been moving on several fronts, such as creation of an Energy Innovation Center on a uranium mill tailings reclamation site.
The center is focusing on trying to bridge the gap between conventional and alternative fuels and intends to showcase emerging fuel technologies.
The center is still in its infancy, but a commercial composting facility is in the works, and this year test crops were grown there as part of a project involving Colorado Mountain College and others to evaluate the energy potential of switchgrass and other grasses.
The city has installed 2.3-megawatts’ worth of solar panels at that site and another location in town, paying no money upfront under an agreement in which it committed to long-term purchases of power.
At the time of their completion, the combined panels represented the largest municipal installation in the state, and the second-largest system overall.
Rifle also joined with Garfield County, the county’s other municipalities and other participants in successfully obtaining $1.6 million in funds from Ritter’s New Energy Communities Initiative.
The result has been $700,000 in solar installations across the county along with other alternative-energy, conservation and other projects by the participants.
Ritter on Thursday commemorated the completion of one such solar installation, at the newly completed Rifle Branch Library of the Garfield County Public Library District. That project was expected to provide half the library’s power. Instead, it’s covering more than 100 percent of the building’s needs, meaning its meter is running backwards, library officials are reporting with glee.
TOUR OF DOWNTOWN
Also Thursday, Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert took Ritter on a brief tour of downtown to show some of the projects being undertaken through the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative, under which participating communities benefit from the targeted resources of several state agencies.
The tour included a historic theater being renovated by the city, and a city-owned former lumber store site slated for redevelopment for such possible uses as restaurants and shops. Lambert also proudly showed off the city’s popular Centennial Park, which has LED lighting funded by Ritter’s New Energy Communities Initiative.
Transit-oriented development and a walkable downtown full of attractions are among city leaders’ other visions for Rifle.
Those leaders aren’t discounting the continued importance of traditional energy development to the city’s economy.
But Lambert said the dream of a more diverse energy and economic future for Rifle, initially voiced by a small number of city leaders several years ago, has come to be embraced by the city at large.
“There’s a feeling in the community as well that this is our destiny and this is our future,” he said.
Michael Langhorne, who has volunteered to spearhead the city’s sustainable downtown program, praised Ritter’s efforts to have state agencies “come to the table” with the city in its efforts rather than standing as bureaucratic obstacles.
“This kind of partnership is very vital for rural communities,” he said.
He said it also will be important for the administration of Colorado’s next governor, John Hickenlooper, to keep the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative going.
In an interview, Ritter said he hopes Hickenlooper will continue something along the lines of that initiative and also continue with the clean-energy efforts Ritter shepherded while governor.
“The governor-elect and I talked about Colorado’s potential as a hub for a clean-energy economy. There’s more to do, and I think he’s dedicated to doing that,” Ritter said.
With Ritter’s time as governor drawing to a close, local beneficiaries of his clean-energy initiatives seized the opportunity Thursday to thank him for those initiatives and share some of the results with him.
“We’re helping every sector in the region to save energy,” Glenwood City Council member Shelley Kaup said of the work being done by the Garfield New Energy Communities Initiative, whose board she heads.
Alice Laird, director of Clean Energy Economy for the Region, the nonprofit that administers that initiative, told Ritter, “We cannot describe the enormous positive change it’s made in the region. It’s brought our region together in a very tangible way.”
For Lambert, it has been gratifying to see the accomplishments occurring at the regional level and within Rifle itself.
“It’s all happening, and seemingly it’s like becoming a star overnight. It hasn’t been overnight. It’s been a long process, but we’re reaping the rewards,” he said.