JACKSON, Wyo. Town officials in Jackson returned from a 2006 conference in Aspen, Colo., persuaded of the imminent need to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But, like so many communities across North America that have vowed to curtail their part in greenhouse gas emissions, the town officials got bogged down, uncertain how to make good on their pledge.
Now, a clearer path forward has begun to take shape in this town of 8,647 people. The transformation outlined by town officials after a two-day conference called the "Energy Sustainability Summit" calls for a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood makeover of individual homes. Concerns about rising energy prices will, at least in this campaign, trump a call to action to reduce green house gases.
"We have to be decisive in action, in our small ways," said Jackson Mayor Mark Barron.
At first glance, Jackson might seem a curious place to be concerned about energy costs. It is located in Teton County, which annually jockeys with Aspen's Pitkin County and Connecticut's Fairfield County in topping U.S. per-capita income.
That simple statistic tells only part of the story, however. Jackson itself is rife with old houses from when Jackson was still a ranch town, plus block after block of suburban-type houses built in the 1960s and 1970s. Absent the skis in the doorways and the rubber rafts in the driveways, they could be anywhere. Walls typically are paper thin, insulation sparse, and altogether built as if energy were cheap.
It is. With power generated by the giant hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin, Jackson Hole has among the lowest electricity rates in the nation, just 5 cents a kilowatt-hour for consumers. Because of that cheap cost, many homes even now are heated by electricity.
But the cheap electricity is all spoken for. Electricity rates in the Pacific Northwest will escalate rapidly if populations and personal energy continue to grow. Even without a carbon tax, electricity produced by burning coal has become substantially more expensive.
This is the essential argument Jackson leaders intend to make during coming months. As a simple economic proposition, they say, town residents will benefit if they use less energy. The town intends to make it easier for them to do so, improving energy efficiency first but also installing solar and other renewable energy systems.
This retrofit, according to town officials and their consultant, Oregon-based Climate Solutions, is to begin with just one neighbourhood of 15 to 20 houses, much like a city might replace water and sewer lines. They theorize that the success of reducing energy costs will cause other neighbourhoods to become eager to be chosen as model neighbourhoods, too.
Berkeley, Calif., and Boulder County, Colo., have launched community-wide programs in recent years to enable energy improvements. In Colorado, low-cost loans from private financiers - but backed by the county government - are attached directly to the individual properties. Loan payments are to be assessed along with the property tax. Participation is voluntary.
Voters in Eagle (Vail), Pitkin (Aspen) and Gunnison (Crested Butte) counties are being asked in elections this week to approve similar programs.
In Jackson, town administrator Bob McLaurin sees the key as finding what he calls "patient capital." Saving energy saves money - but some savings will come more slowly than others. If all goes as planned, he says, the first neighbourhood improvements can be launched next summer.
He and other town officials hope that opting into the energy-upgrade program will become a point of distinction for neighbourhoods. At first, he says, many homeowners may opt out of the program. But if they see success in neighbourhoods, others will be eager to have their portions of Jackson chosen for the program.
This represents the more public component of an energy program launched after Jackson joined the U.S. Mayors' Agreement on Climate Protection in 2006. More than 1,000 towns and cities - including many ski towns - have now joined.
In doing so, they have vowed to attempt to meet or beat the greenhouse emission reduction target suggested for the United States by the Kyoto Protocol. That goal is a 7 per cent reduction from 1990 levels by 2012.
If virtually no towns or cities are likely to hit that goal, Jackson and many others are starting to take meaningful action. Like others, Jackson and Teton County have focused their early efforts on cleaning house. An energy inventory was conducted of government operations, to provide a baseline against which improvements could be measured.
In a program called 10 X 10, they called on all employees to reduce energy use 10 per cent by 2010. Whether or not you believe in global warming, they said, public employees had the obligation to save taxpayer money. It now appears that goal has been surpassed.
Now, they are reframing that same argument and taking it to the broader community. While greenhouse gases remain a theoretical - much as the dangers of smoking to an 18 year old, and the severe consequences almost entirely in the more distant future - rising energy prices are almost surely just around the corner.
Instrumental to Jackson's effort has been Larry Pardee, the town public works director. Working with some of his shop mechanics, he helped devise a system that reduces the need for idling of engines. He also was responsible for getting LED lights - which are 10 times more efficient than the compact-fluorescents - installed in Jackson's new three-storey parking garage. He also helped get solar panels installed at the town's sewage treatment plant, a major gobbler of electricity.
None of these things will get Jackson close to meeting the Kyoto target, But, like climbing in the Tetons, Pardee and other officials in Jackson see this as a lengthy process, a transition that will take 20 years. It's time to quit talking about it, he says, and time to take action.