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8 Local Heroes Bettering the Future of the Planet and Its People

By Greg Poschman | October 14, 2020 | People

We highlight the Aspen people who are doing good for the future of our planet and humanity.

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When I reflect on my hometown of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, I’m struck by the question, “Why is this place so different from everywhere else?” In 1947, Walter Paepcke, founder of modern Aspen, said, “Our remoteness will be an advantage.” I interpret his comment to mean only the really motivated and passionate will make the effort to get here—and to stay here. Face it, it’s difficult to travel here. And to stay here. And it’s expensive. You really do need passion and pluck, or a really fat bank account.

One notable characteristic of our passionate community is the culture of action. Citizens here are empowered to commit to the causes they believe in and to personally take action on both local and global issues.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted our focus from the ongoing emergency of climate change, but there are lessons to be learned from the coronavirus, which we can apply to that other, even more consequential, existential crisis. One noticeable climate effect of COVID-19 is lower carbon emissions. The skies over Wuhan, New York and L.A. are clearing, but this can be likened to a person who loses weight when they are sick. It’s temporary yet the positives are laudable.

Other consequences include reduced returns in the oil and gas industry, which may not recover fully, as renewables take a larger slice of the pie with cleaner results. Energy use patterns are changing around the world, and people are getting used to the idea of telecommuting. In the Aspen area, internet usage is up 92%, while household energy use is up 6% nationally—but energy use for corporate and educational buildings is dropping an average of 25%, more than offsetting the increases.

Many passionate locals in the Roaring Fork Valley are making big waves, leading by example and changing our world. Paepcke would be impressed. Here are a few of them.

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HAL HARVEY, ENERGY INNOVATION

Hal Harvey grew up in Aspen, climbing mountains, ranching and skiing, and maintains a home here, which he regularly visits. His San Francisco-based consulting firm, Energy Innovation, is often called upon to help companies reach their efficiency goals. Harvey has consulted the former occupant ofthe White House, The New York Times columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman, and is on call for industry leaders who aspire to change the world for the better. His 2019 book, Designing Climate Solutions ($27, Island Press), is a guide for leaders on how to write effective policy for low-carbon energy. This Aspen native’s impact on the environment has global reach.

Harvey frequently is quoted by Friedman, an Aspen regular, in his columns. The journalist, for example, wrote in a late March edition of The New York Times: “...as we invest in infrastructure to stimulate our economy out of this coronavirus crisis, we should be doing it to make our society more resilient against both pandemics and climate change. We should use tax incentives to make it incredibly beneficial for every utility to decarbonize its power generation and shift to wind, solar and other renewables. Once the grid is carbon- free or close to it, every electric car becomes carbon-free, every electric-powered building becomes carbon-free and every electric- powered factory becomes carbon-free. That makes us physically more fit and economically more resilient.”

BILL JOY, IONIC MATERIALS AND SOLIDIA

A founder of the former Sun Microsystems, Bill Joy has lived in Aspen off and on since around 1990. He is still innovating, but global problems like pandemics and climate change have taken his focus. As a green tech venture capitalist, Joy has a portfolio of companies that show great promise in reducing global climate emissions, including Ionic Materials and Solidia.

Traditional ways of making cement for concrete products account for 5% of global carbon emissions. Solidia makes carbon-neutral precast concrete building elements and is working on carbon-negative ready-mix concrete—a game changer that will have a huge impact on the carbon balance.

Joy also concluded that batteries must be made from more abundant materials, with less reliance on rare cobalt and volatile liquid electrolytes that make lithium batteries expensive and dangerously flammable. In response, Ionic Materials is scaling up production of solid-state, polymer- based electrolytes and will have a green impact on everything from mobile phones and electric cars to utility-scale safe battery storage systems.

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“... AS WE INVEST IN INFRASTRUCTURE TO STIMULATE OUR ECONOMY OUT OF THIS CORONAVIRUS CRISIS, WE SHOULD BE DOING IT TO MAKE OUR SOCIETY MORE RESILIENT AGAINST BOTH PANDEMICS AND CLIMATE CHANGE.” –THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN, OP-ED COLUMNIST AND ASPEN REGULAR, AS STATED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES

HALEY BOYD, SUSTAINABILITY EXPERT AND SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCER

Part-time Aspen resident Haley Boyd (@haleboyd) is on a mission to help companies offset their carbon footprint through responsible and sustainable packaging. Happily, the demand to do better is abundant. Boyd founded and sold successful accessories brand Marais and approaches her nearly 55,000 followers from the position of entrepreneur and consumer.

“I shared an Insta story about the reasons fashion brands generally package items in plastic bags. From the consumer's standpoint, it probably seems like an easy thing to eliminate, but it's actually a big challenge,” Boyd says. “I overviewed why they are used and why they're hard to get rid of. I am advocating for solutions about how to use less harmful plastic and how to move away from plastic altogether. Quite a few brands contacted me, and many of them are looking to change their packaging or have already done so.”

She continues: “I am developing a portal where fashion brands can source raw materials and packaging that have been vetted and scored on environmental impacts (carbon emissions, water acidification, etc.). It is essential to make decisions based on environmental impact data.”

ZACH HENDRIX, LONG-RANGE AND CLIMATE ACTION PLANNING, PITKIN COUNTY

A graduate of Aspen High School and a stalwart of the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club, Zach Hendrix studied physics at University of Colorado Boulder, followed by finance at Colorado Mountain College, and then worked as a legal assistant before combining his acquired skills—all while toiling away in Pitkin County’s Community Development department. Hendrix has been working with Cindy Houben, Brian Pawl and Ellen Sassano, meticulously revamping the county’s energy and building codes to make them easier to navigate while giving applicants more freedom to choose how to meet increasingly stringent energy code regulations. By adopting benchmarks for developers to meet—while giving them latitude to choose how to get there—the Community Development department has leveraged the creative power of entrepreneurship.

And Hendrix has been instrumental in writing Pitkin County’s carbon-focused energy code, putting it into a form that laypeople, policymakers and contractors can understand. “While many of us are told how to combat climate change individually,” he says, “the opportunity to work on our building and energy codes will make a substantive impact on the future of our community. I look forward to implementing significant and long-term solutions to climate change.”

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“IT’S UP TO US TO FUND THE INITIATIVES THAT MAKE CHANGE QUICKLY. CURRENTLY, $4 BILLION A YEAR IS SPENT GLOBALLY ON CLIMATE DENIAL AND MISINFORMATION CAMPAIGNS. MUCH OF THIS IS IN ‘PHILANTHROPIC’ DOLLARS. WITH SMALLER, WELL-TARGETED INVESTMENTS, PHILANTHROPY CAN FIGHT BACK EFFECTIVELY.” –JILL SOFFER, CO-FOUNDER, OUR PART FOUNDATION

CHRIS BILBY, HOLY CROSS ENERGY AND BASALT VISTA HOUSING DEVELOPMENT

Chris Bilby is master of sparks for a unique partnership between Pitkin County, Town of Basalt, Roaring Fork Schools, Habitat for Humanity and the leadership at Holy Cross Energy. On Basalt’s Southside, Basalt Vista housing development is a groundbreaking innovation in management of household energy use and independence from the electrical grid.

Bilby, a University of Oklahoma-trained engineer, says, “This experiment is helping Holy Cross create self-regulating and independent energy systems for our customers. Basalt Vista is a model of what we want to do in the future.” Each unit is state of the art in energy conservation and combines that with solar photovoltaics and energy storage to create net- zero homes. The systems are also networked to allow controls necessary to take them off the grid and collect research data for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. These innovations are attracting worldwide attention for Basalt Vista, Holy Cross and Bilby. The energy cooperative wants renewable energy to account for 70% of its energy portfolio by 2030 and will likely reach that goal ahead of schedule.

JILL SOFFER AND REBECCA MIRSKY, OUR PART

Our Part foundation educates and collaborates with donors to build a philanthropic community that supports organizations best poised to drive rapid change. According to its mission, “We must fund solutions that ensure the widespread adaptation of cheap and market- ready renewables. We need public pressure and political will to continue and increase the demand for clean energy.”

Philanthropy can act quickly to fund new and aggressive solutions that would otherwise be bogged down if part of the government process. “It’s up to us to fund the initiatives that make change quickly,” says co-founder Jill Soffer. “Currently, $4 billion a year is spent globally on climate denial and misinformation campaigns. Much of this is in ‘philanthropic’ dollars. With smaller, well-targeted investments, philanthropy can fight back effectively.”

JORDAN FOX, AUTHOR

Finally, I come to local author Jordan Fox whose new book, The Changemaker Attitude ($15, self-published via New Degree Press), explores why individuals matter in the fight against climate change. Growing up in Aspen, she acquired essential tools; intellectual curiosity; a vision uncommon for someone from a small, rural community; and a sense that she can contribute and accomplish anything she sets her mind to. She is a product of the Aspen Idea and proof that it works as a code by which to live.

Fox follows unlikely advocates for changing the world for the better—people driven by a desire to solve basic problems, to help their fellow humans and to heal our damaged global system. The people she profiles come from vastly different walks of life and some have been through trials unimaginable to the average American. Yet, the people in The Changemaker Attitude are similar to our Roaring Fork Valley heroes: innovators, change-makers and visionaries who will not settle.



Photography by: From top: Photo-nick.co/uk/Unsplash; Stockbyte/Getty Images; Jonnya123/Istock; F11Photo/Shutterstock