When you think of Fargo, North Dakota, energy efficiency is not the first thing that comes to mind. Most likely it is the cold or the 1996 Coen brothers film of the same name. But over the last three years, as a part of a wider, national competition, they have made efforts to go green. Their work paid off, and on Dec. 18, 2017, they were crowned the winner of the Georgetown University Energy Prize. Though the town found itself empowered by the competition, they also discovered that the prize might not be everything they had expected.
First announced in April 2014, the prize aimed to provide the spark that communities across the country needed to attain their sustainability goals. For Fargo, a city in an oil-rich red state, it was exactly that.
“With no hesitation I can say that this was a catalyst for our city. In a place and a region where talking about these things is not easy, it was the best thing to happen for being green in Fargo,” said Malini Srivastava, the project lead for efargo, the group which spearheaded the city’s efforts during the competition. Srivastava said the competition provided an opportunity for the city to strive for the sustainability goals laid out in its community-sourced, 20-year plan.
“The community wants this. They want renewable energy sources, they want the safety that brighter, more efficient street lighting provides, they want to reduce carbon emissions,” Srivastava said. “Efargo wants to make this vision happen. The Energy Prize gave us goals to formulate solutions to achieve this vision.”
Srivastava, who is a faculty member at North Dakota State University, developed a program with her graduate students centered on games that tried to make learning about energy efficiency fun. Srivastava described games developed for the city’s schools, where students would learn about an energy-saving idea each week and then brainstorm ways to make their school more efficient. Srivastava’s team measured the weekly energy usage of each building, and the schools competed to see which could reduce energy use the most.
There were also demonstrations for community events. “These were fun and simple to communicate to kids these ideas about energy efficiency and their parents as well who would be watching them. We passed out free light bulbs we got with grant money and had just a few minutes of their time, but this strategy worked really well,” Srivastava said. The games yielded strong returns, with data showing almost immediate energy reductions.
The second phase included an assessment of the city’s municipal properties. Srivastava said municipal energy usage dropped by a few percentage points, but more importantly, they established a framework to continue to see future reductions. This framework includes building codes that set a higher bar for efficiency on municipal buildings and appropriations of city money for sustainability projects.
Uwe Brandes, the current executive director of the Energy Prize, described in an email to the Voice the judging criteria that was used to select the 10 finalists and declare Fargo the winner. These categories included innovation, replicability, equitability, involvement of education and the community, and total energy savings. This mixture of qualitative and quantitative measurements was designed to allow the judges to reward creative new ideas they thought would work in other communities.
What drove Fargo and 200 other cities like it to invest their precious time and money into grassroots initiatives like these? The spark the Energy Prize created to launch these projects was the promise of a big reward. Initially, the prize described in the Competition Guidelines included “a projected $5M prize purse, to be spent on energy-efficiency programs that reward the community as a whole, for example to ensure the continuing implementation of long term plan.”
The day the competition was announced, April 23, 2014, the university issued a press release introducing the contest and the prize that came with it. “One lucky community with a population between 5,000 and 250,000 will receive $5 million in 2017 to support sustainable energy-saving innovations,” the statement reads. The next day, the Voice wrote that according to Francis Slakey, executive director of the Energy Prize at the time, the prize money would come from a number of sponsors and partnerships with the university.
News outlets and other organizations began reporting the $5 million prize, including Forbes and the National League of Cities. During the course of the competition, local papers published headlines highlighting the gaudy sum, like “Madison named semifinalist in $5 million Georgetown Energy Prize” from the Badger Herald, or “Vermont capital in running for $5m energy efficiency prize” from the Burlington Free Press. Following the competition, on Dec. 18, 2017, the Bismarck Tribune ran the headline “Fargo bags $5 million prize for energy saving in national competition.”
But, by the time Fargo was declared the winner, the prize package described on the Energy Prize website had changed. It included access to various energy consultations and tuition for one person to complete a master or executive master of professional studies degree or an online certificate program through the School of Continuing Studies. Lastly, the prize would include “consulting services by the National Energy and Water Infrastructure Exchange (NEWIE) toward the shared goal of developing a $5 million energy efficiency ‘dream project’ by enabling the community to secure $5 million in financing.”
In bold, at the bottom of the “Prize” section, the site read, “This prize package does not include a cash distribution.”
The program plan that Fargo submitted during the semifinal application process included a section where they described what they would do if they won the prize. Srivastava said they wanted to create a permanent think tank modeled after efargo to continue to work on improving energy efficiency in the city. “The best thing about the prize was the momentum it created and license to really be innovative, and we want to create a home for more ideas and more momentum,” Srivastava said.
However, receiving financing and not a cash prize could present some challenges. “When asked at the time, I thought it might be cash and not financing. We really want to do our original plan, and we aren’t sure how financing will change that plan,” Srivastava said. “While having it financed specifically for energy uses prevents it from disappearing into some general fund, it also restricts what we can do with the money. And, we need favorable terms on the loan to make that happen.”
University spokesperson Rachel Pugh wrote in an email to the Voice that Fargo will work with NEWIE toward getting the financing for the project they decide to undertake. “Two of the nation’s leading energy efficiency financing experts with NEWIE will provide assistance in project development and contractor selection, and they will work to enable the community to secure the necessary financing to implement the project,” Pugh wrote. “NEWIE will be working with Fargo on delivering this aspect of the prize in the weeks ahead.”
The first hint that the prize purse might not include cash came on May 3, 2017, when Version 8.3 of the competition guidelines was posted to the Energy Prize website (when the competition was launched, Version 6.0 was current). Where it once read, “projected $5M purse,” the new guidelines read, “the winning community will receive a prize to support energy-efficiency programs that reward the community as a whole, for example to ensure the continuing implementation of long term plan.”
Some communities took notice, but not for a number of months after the new guidelines were released. The team leading the efforts of Houghton County, Michigan, one of the northernmost counties in the state’s Upper Peninsula and one of the smallest communities participating in the competition, first brought it to the attention of the Houghton City Council in October 2017. As reported by the Daily Mining Gazette, Melissa Davis, who led the Houghton Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) which coordinated with the community during the competition, was concerned about the change in the prize.
Sarah Green, president of the board of New Power Tour, Inc., the nonprofit behind HEET, and a member of the faculty at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, said this is because Houghton could not enter into the financial burden of a $5 million loan.
“We put in a final report last spring, after which we were notified that we were finalists. That was when we were told it was a $5 million loan, not a prize,” Green said. When notified they were finalists, Houghton received a “Finalist Participant Agreement” they had to sign to move on in the competition. The agreement released Georgetown and its employees or representatives from any liability regarding the competition and also clarified that “the Prize Package does not include a cash prize.”
Houghton did not sign it and did not advance to the final round.
After declining to sign the agreement, Davis wrote a letter to university President John DeGioia, which Green shared with the Voice. In it, she described HEET’s frustration with the change in the prize and accused Georgetown of a bait-and-switch. “Without explanation, we are now asked to accept that GUEP [Georgetown University Energy Prize] is and seemingly always was intended to be an opportunity to incur debt,” Davis wrote. “With this bait-and-switch, the University’s reputation and its commitment to principles of justice and service of others is at risk. Georgetown University owes it to every GUEP competitor to use its vast wealth to fund the GUEP $5 million cash prize, as originally promised.”
Green wrote in an email to the Voice that as of Jan. 23, 2018 they had not received a response to their letter, which they sent on Nov. 15, 2017.
HEET’s efforts focused on weatherizing housing for low-income residents, and Green said that with hopes of winning the $5 million prize, they put off updating houses heated with wood or propane because those did not count towards the measurable energy usage they were reporting for the competition. Green added that the group focused more on Houghton than the surrounding areas, which also needed assistance, with the expectation that if they won they would be able to help these outlying communities.
“We’re pretty pissed. It’s pretty egregious behavior from Georgetown as an institution that trumpets values of helping others,” Green said. “People got very excited about the energy prize, and our work was done entirely on a volunteer basis, driven by Melissa Davis.”
Green said the change in the purse would have been more tolerable if it had been better communicated to the participating communities. “If there had been an emergency that caused the prize to change from $5 million to $3 million or $1 million, some communication would have taken the sting out, but that never came.”
Houghton was not the only community disappointed in Georgetown following what they saw as a lack of communication and transparency. Park City, Utah, in Summit County, had similar complaints. Lisa Yoder, the sustainability coordinator for Summit County, said that they found out about the changes to the purse “accidentally” when they checked the Energy Prize website wondering why they had not received any updates.
“On occasion we would happen to come across an update rather than being sent to us as a competitor, as a participant. We got them by happenstance, including, in fact, the notice of who won, and that we did not become a finalist,” Yoder said. Yoder also added that Summit County had learned that it did not advance to the final round when the Voice contacted it for an interview. “That came from you. That’s the first I saw of it, and I circulated it. We didn’t even get that from the university,” Yoder said.
Yoder said that the city spent $117,000 during the two-year energy measurement phase, but they believed it would be a worthwhile investment. “The county had decided to compete regardless of the outcome. Our intent was that it was a good thing for our community, it was in line with our goals, it was in line with what we were already pursuing. So we were completely on board with participating. The great disappointment, with the whole thing was the non-communication,” Yoder said.
Yoder found this especially frustrating when the announcement of the finalists was pushed back without notification. In the original competition guidelines, the period for the “Finalist Selection, Judging, and Awards” was scheduled to last from January 2017 to June 2017. In the current version, that same period is August 2017 to December 2017. The 10 finalists were announced on Nov. 21, 2017 in an Energy Prize press release, and Fargo was declared the winner on Dec. 18, 2017.
Brandes was tasked with communicating with the 200 communities who entered the competition, and then the 50 semifinalists who participated in the energy saving phase. He used email as the main method of communication.
“We have been in regular communication with finalists since September . All communities were updated by email in April 2017, and communities that were not advancing to the final round received written notification prior to the announcement,” Brandes wrote. “We worked very hard to make sure all communities could celebrate their successes, even if they were not in the top 10 and even if they were not the winner.”
Brandes also wrote that the final details of the prize, including the financing portion, were confirmed by email and telephone with the finalists in September 2017.
Throughout the competition, Yoder said her team had trouble reporting data to the competition. Summit County struggled with the data entry dashboard where communities reported data for natural gas and electricity use. Yoder described several unsuccessful attempts to check that her data was accurately entered.
According to Green, Houghton experienced similar problems.
Brandes addressed these issues in his email to the Voice. “While we recognize the dashboard did not work as planned, we worked to ensure that communities were able to access their data and were able to update it through our online portal.”
Takoma Park, Maryland, is just a short Metro ride from Georgetown, and another community that competed for the prize. Their community was able to earn a third place tie with Bellingham, Washington, and reduced their municipal and residential gas usage by 25 percent, according to Gina Mathias, Takoma Park’s sustainability manager.
Mathias also said that volunteers knocked on 5,500 of the nearly 7,000 doors in the city, spreading the word about the competition and the ways in which people could make their homes more efficient.
“We focused on leveraging Power Maryland utility sponsored programs, quick home energy check ups, free audits, and rebate programs for energy star appliances,” Mathias said. “We provided free energy coaching for energy reduction and provided services on what people could expect to pay for certain appliances or energy work done on their homes to see if they were getting a fair price.”
The most important aspect of Takoma Park’s campaign in Mathias’ eyes was the level of visibility their team created for the contest. According to Mathias, they had bright yellow yard signs, tabled at community events, went on local access television, and even created a parody “movie trailer” featuring the town’s mayor.
Mathias said Takoma Park did not experience the same difficulties with communication or with online data entry that other communities did.
Something Mathias stressed was that even though they did not win the competition, and even with the change in the prize, the community is glad it participated. “We’re not disappointed by it. We didn’t win so we don’t feel like we are missing out. We were doing this, contest prize money or not, to reach our city’s goals,” Mathias said. She added that had they won, they were excited about the offer of consulting because services like that would normally be outside their budget.
In Takoma Park, much like in Fargo, the competition motivated people to try and do something for their community. “Having it be a contest on a national scale, that was a huge driver that really excited people. Energy efficiency is not on a normal person’s to-do list, and it’s not always a priority for small businesses, but the extra visibility really helped,” Mathias said. “It meant a lot to the people who participated that we had real results and that we are not just saying things about Takoma Park being green, but that we’re actually making progress and doing things.”
Brandes said the communities could be proud of their measurable results. “Communities participating in the prize collectively saved 11.5 trillion BTUs of energy, reducing their carbon emissions by an estimated 2.76 million metric tons—the equivalent of taking one car off the road for every 30 minutes of the competition—and saving nearly $100 million from municipal and household energy budgets,” Brandes wrote.
On top of the numbers, Brandes also believes that the community networks created in these towns as they tried to become more efficient will endure and continue to create results. “Overall, the competing cities proved that small and medium-sized communities across the United States are in the position to design and promote innovative strategies and further national and international conversations about energy use,” Brandes wrote. “Their ingenuity and effective performance show us what is possible and will serve as valuable models for other communities seeking to innovate their practices.”
For Yoder, even with the missed opportunity and Park City’s frustrations, the competition was ultimately positive for their community. “We appreciate the opportunity to be rallied and for bringing our community behind the effort. We just regret the way that it ended,” Yoder said. “But our efforts continue, our results continue. That was always the goal. Win or lose it would be good for us.”
Image Credits: Egan Barnitt/The Georgetown Voice