Green Gigs: How a Performing Arts Center Can Be Net Zero

Ryan Honey, the Executive Director at The Arts Campus at Willits, made the most energy efficient performance center in Colorado with rooftop solar and all electric utilities. It will soon be net zero.

  • CORE Support: $60,000 CORE grant

It was a near miss and chance encounter that started The Arts Campus at Willits on its Path to Zero. But as the arts organization winds up construction on its new Contemporary Center for the Performing Arts, AKA The Contemporary, and gets ready to welcome audiences in summer 2021, the conversation is still far from over.

A few years ago, TACAW Executive Director Ryan Honey was skiing in Snowmass for a friend’s 50th birthday party. Coming out of a line on Hanging Valley Wall, he and another skier nearly ran into each other. They got to talking later in the lodge, first about the awesome powder conditions that spurred the near collision, then introduced themselves: Turns out the other skier was Dave Munk, a board member of both Holy Cross Energy and CORE. That fortuitous meeting got the conversation rolling on how to make TACAW’s future performing arts center — then in the early planning stages — as climate-friendly as possible.

At Munk’s urging, in 2019 TACAW applied for and received CORE’s biggest grant, then called The Randy Udall Energy (TRUE) Pioneer Grant, rebranded as the all-encompassing CORE Grant, which would pay for most of the cost of a 64-kilowatt solar array on the roof of the 10,000-square-foot building. Receiving the grant says Honey, “made it clear to us we wanted to go all-in on sustainability for our new building. Everyone at CORE is so passionate about the mission. They walk the walk; they’re true believers.”

And so, the conversation evolved between TACAW, CORE, and Holy Cross. Possibilities were explored to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, and everyone got excited. When the team planning the building said gas wouldn’t power it at all, “our input on that note was, no gas is great, but you have to do electric right,” says CORE Program Director Marty Treadway.

That led to, for example, a decision to use a more climate-friendly refrigerant than is typically used in the heat pump system. And an all-electric building powered by solar, Honey and Treadway both pointed out, holds the potential of storing energy in batteries, possibly for future community use.

“At a time when we’re talking about resiliency in communities and our buildings, the arts center as a community node could offer some resiliency in times of crisis,” says Treadway. “This is a unique opportunity to make a difference with a really valuable community space.”

For Holy Cross, a progressive utility that has committed to providing 100% renewable energy by 2030, the publicly accessible building could serve as an example to potential clients, a showcase of what’s possible.

Ryan Honey also doesn’t consider the conversation closed once the Contemporary opens this summer. For one, there’s planning for the rest of the arts campus — the building sits on just one-third of the parcel on which TACAW has a 99-year lease. Then there’s the Contemporary’s programming, and all the people — artists, audiences, chefs, presenters — who will be coming through. Communication about energy efficiency, beneficial electrification, and climate should be infused in all those areas.

“We see CORE as a real partner in trying to elevate the conversation on climate change with our new building,” says Honey.

So, how does The Contemporary become the first net-zero performing arts center in Colorado — and one of the few in the country? Here are 5 ways:

1. Rooftop solar
A large, flat roof in the middle of a sun-soaked valley is a great place for a solar array. TACAW worked with Holy Cross to figure out how much electricity would be needed to power the building, and solar was the obvious choice. The biggest factor in getting to net-zero and one of the largest in the valley, the 64KW system is estimated to produce 103,000 kilowatt hours per year — which is about what the building is expected to use, says Honey. There’s room for a few more panels, and “if we need additional energy, we plan to buy renewable from Holy Cross until we can upgrade our systems to get to net-zero.”

TACAW’s 64-kilowatt solar array covering the entire roof of the 10,000-square-foot building

2. All-electric kitchen
With culinary arts becoming so popular, they’ll be integral to The Contemporary’s programming — think dinner and a movie. By not having a gas line powering stoves and other kitchen appliances, “part of the story is chefs learning how to cook in a net-zero kitchen, which is where it’s all going faster than any of us think,” says Honey, who consulted with caterers and restauranteurs on the topic. And the opportunity to showcase all-electric cooking to participants and audiences in culinary events and programs — priceless.

3. LED lighting and air circulation
All the lights throughout The Contemporary are LED, which not only is the most energy-efficient and longest-lasting option available, but also offers another distinct advantage for a performing arts center: LED lights don’t generate heat. Honey tells of running the AC full blast in the middle of winter at The Temporary, due in large part to all those traditional bulbs generating heat in a room packed with people. In the new building, LED lighting and an air circulation system that can pull in fresh air from outside are expected to be a major factor in reducing energy usage.

The unfinished basement of The Contemporary’s new campus. It’s well lit and ventilated using as little energy as possible and even has extra space for battery storage.

4. Involve the artists
The performing arts are a fossil fuel-intensive industry, considering artists’ needs to tour — and all the stuff that can accompany a traveling gig. TACAW is looking to change that. Starting with the Denver-Boulder to Basalt corridor, Honey is hoping to find partners to provide zero-emissions transportation, for example — and work toward net-zero bookings one route at a time. “As a net-zero performing arts center, we have a unique opportunity to transform the touring industry,” he says.

Ryan Honey looking good in the laser-level light. As an artist himself, he knows how to drive action in his community.
5. Get people talking
Issue-based programming, including panel discussions about climate change and documentaries on issues concerning the mountain West, will be an important part of The Contemporary’s offerings, Honey promises. He’s also planning a display about the building’s net-zero story in the lobby area, called the Commons, where a 14-foot video wall might also show a livestream of a climate conference, for example. There will be bike racks and likely a WE-cycle station, plus ample opportunity to use The Contemporary’s backyard, which includes a 75-seat amphitheater and lots of green space. “This building will be a model building, but we also want it to be a hub for conversation and things that drive action,” says Honey. “Anything we can do to move the needle.”

The Contemporary has big plans to blast the sustainability message out to any and all that want to be a part of a carbon-free future.

TACAW is about to be the lowest carbon-producing performing arts center in all of Colorado – and as far as we know, the entire country – with a little help from a CORE Grant. Start a conversation with CORE’s Program Director Marty Treadway and learn how we can help fund your innovative carbon-cutting project. Don’t delay, CORE’s biggest and most competitive grant is now accepting applications on a rolling basis, 24/7/365!

Written by: Catherine Lutz

Catherine Lutz is a freelance writer based in Aspen. As a former newspaper reporter who has written about everything from entertainment to skiing to climate change for a wide variety of publications, nonprofits, and businesses, she understands the power of words to help connect us more closely with an idea, issue, or other people. An avid skier and biker raising two children to appreciate how lucky they are to grow up in the Roaring Fork Valley, she also hopes she and her family can make a positive impact on the community and the environment that sustains us.

CORE is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to leading the Roaring Fork Valley to a carbon-free, net zero energy future.