Georgetown University criticized for handling of energy competition
Summit County and Park City’s environmental sustainability leaders are criticizing Georgetown University for the handling of the national energy-saving competition and $5 million cash prize that was promised to the winner.
Once Summit County and Park City staffers decided to participate in the contest in 2014, they devoted a significant amount of community time and resources to the effort over a two-year period. Summit County and Park City were one of 50 communities selected as a finalist.
However, officials learned early this year – after the competition was complete – that the prize package had changed to include consulting services and training in lieu of the cash prize. Additionally, the top 10 finalists have still not been announced nearly a year after the contest has ended. A letter was reportedly sent to Summit County and Park City last week as a notification that the community did not make the top 10, according to Summit County and Park City sustainability officials.
Now, several people are expressing frustration with the apparent lack of communication and transparency from the University, with some referring to the competition and prize as a scam.
Mary Christa Smith, former project manager for Summit Community Power Works, which is the local nonprofit organization that spearheaded the county’s entry, said the university was “beyond misleading.”
“It feels like a shady scam,” Smith said. “I’m so proud of our community, but completely disgusted with Georgetown University. They have never been transparent in their selection process and to take away the $5 million that was promised, I’m not going to say it was criminal, but it’s deeply disturbing and unethical.”
The Georgetown University energy competition purportedly measured residential and municipal consumption of electricity and natural gas over a two-year period. The purpose of the contest was to develop innovative and replicable programs to reduce energy.
The participating communities were supposed to be updated of their progress on a quarterly basis, but failed to consistently receive communication from Georgetown University, according to Lisa Yoder, Summit County’s sustainability coordinator.
“The whole point of the competition, as we understood it, was to find out what it would take to get a community to move the needle and reduce energy consumption,” she said. “We are very proud of the work we did and proud of the community. We made lots of progress that SCPW will continue to build on. We constantly evaluated our decision to participate and it still is a valuable effort. It certainly is going to have long-lasting benefit to the community.
“But, we are really disappointed that there was no communication and no transparency,” she added. “And that there was no explanation of the shifting of the prize. If there had been, we could have dealt with it.”
Summit County was consistently within the top 10 of the competition during the first several months. But, Yoder said, representatives of the competition became non-responsive as the contest continued.
Yoder said she originally thought Summit County would be notified of the winner in the spring, but the date kept changing, in addition to how the community’s efforts would be scored.
“We didn’t mislead anyone. Georgetown misled us,” she said. “Maybe their benefactor backed out, who knows what happened. But just convey that. That’s the big irritant here. Just tell us so we can deal with it and let our community know. I don’t think we were misled for two years. At the time they issued the competition I think the intent was there. My guess, only my guess, is that the funding wasn’t secured when they announced it.”
Christofer Nelson, who is still listed as the program director of the energy prize and program director of the Georgetown University Program on Science in the Public Interest, failed to respond to multiple requests for comment by The Park Record.
A spokesperson with Georgetown University issued the following statement:
“The Georgetown University Energy Prize was established to encourage local governments and utilities to develop and implement innovative, replicable, and scalable plans for reducing energy consumption. The prize package, which includes consulting services and training, was outlined in writing to the top 50 communities in early 2017.”
The statement continues:
“The finalist communities will be announced next week. Georgetown looks forward to celebrating the accomplishments of so many communities across the country, which have collectively reduced energy consumption by 11 trillion BTUs, resulting in an estimated displacement of 2.76 million tons of carbon dioxide and almost $100 million in estimated savings in municipal and household budgets.”
Matt Abbott, Park City’s former environmental project manager at the time of the competition and current board member for SCPW, questioned the methods that were used to score the data and ultimately rank the finalists.
“There was no real explanation on what our final score was,” he said. “To have a partner like that, that can’t provide you feedback, is really challenging.”
Cartin, Park City’s environmental sustainability manager, said Park City contributed approximately $45,000 to the project and other sustainability efforts through a special services contract. He said the city also contributed staff time. It is unclear what Summit County’s financial contribution was.
But, the efforts were ultimately worthwhile, Cartin said.
“The competition really raised the awareness of energy efficiency in our community,” he said. “I think the stumbling piece is the change in prize. A lot folks feel let down. The biggest piece was, and there were a lot of other issues as well, that change in prize. But, I want to make sure that SCPW isn’t viewed as in misleading the community.
“Even if we are not one of the top 10, we want to make sure whoever wins gets their prize,” he said. “This was about learning from each other and we can’t even do that right now.”
Erin Bragg, new executive director of Summit Community Power Works, said she agrees with the frustration. She acknowledged the effort and finances the community contributed to the competition.
But, she said, SCPW was “going to continue whether or not we won the prize.
“I think something positive that is coming out of this process is that the communities that did compete are all reaching out to each other despite the lack of Georgetown providing the platform to communicate,” she said. “We are still going to make this an experience. But, it’s never good when you are working with a partner and you have an end goal because of a certain competition or activity and at the end your side has to be the one that says, ‘This isn’t happening.’ It’s not fun and it’s not our fault.”
To view the Georgetown University Energy Prize website, go to https://guep.org/.
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Some parts of the project might be pushed until next spring, like paving the trails.