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Crested Butte moves toward arts centre

MT. CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — The dollar trees are starting to shake loose their fruit in Mt. Crested Butte, the sibling municipality to the eponymously named Crested Butte. There, local boosters want to create a performing arts center comparable to what the big destination resorts like Beaver Creek, Jackson, and Aspen have.

They are trying to raise $23 million. So far, the effort has produced $15 million in pledges.

The center, if it gets built, will bear the name the Biery-Witt Performing Arts Center at Mt. Crested Butte. The names come from the president of the organization and a board member.

The organization had said it would take $1.5 million to name the performance hall, but officials tell the Crested Butte News that details of the donation are still being worked out. For the time being, the staff is calling the donation a "generous gift to secure the naming rights."

The time when all of us lived lives of gods

Need light? Turn it on. There's the switch.

Running out of gas? Find a service station. Shouldn't be hard.

Chilly? Turn up the thermostat.

This vast infrastructure based on the cheap, dense energy of fossil fuels is easily taken for granted. The late Randy Udall didn't. Udall, who died in June while backpacking in Wyoming's Wind River Range, told his many listeners through the years that we live in exceptional times.

"We're living like gods right now," he would say in his lectures, which he delivered to dozens, perhaps hundreds of audiences in Colorado and beyond, usually accompanied by powerful PowerPoint presentations.

In sometimes laugh-out-loud ways, he would then demonstrate how remarkable our modern times have been because of the abundance of fossil fuels and their liberal use. In one, a nude Lance Armstrong bicycled, his legs in rapid motion, to produce the energy needed to keep an ordinary light bulb lit.

In another, he had us imagining 60 oarsmen rowing furiously on the Nile River to give the empress Cleopatra a pleasant repast. It was the energy equivalent to six horses, which is now manifested in an ordinary lawnmower.

Then, he would show a woman unloading groceries from a sport-utility vehicle, with six times more power yet at her fingertips than existed anywhere on the planet just 200 years ago. Even soccer moms, he would say, live exceptional lives.

"In an energy sense, we're not living like royalty," he said. "We're not living like Cleopatra. We're living like gods."

Udall didn't think this could continue. Even if oil and gas supplies existed to meet the expanding needs of a world population sprinting toward nine billion at mid-century, we couldn't afford to burn them as we have during the last half-century. The dangers of greenhouse gases were too great.

More imminently, though, he believed he saw a civilization pressing down on the gas pedal to go 150 kilometres even as the gas tank neared empty.

The revolution in drilling technology has taken the wind out of the sails of this peak-oil argument. With advanced fracking techniques, 3D seismology, and horizontal drilling, the gas and oil found in microscopic pore spaces of shale rocks can be extracted. With new production in North Dakota, Montana and Texas, the United States is now poised to surpass Saudi Arabia in oil production. And instead of importing natural gas, the big talk is now of exports.

It's phenomenal, but while Udall acknowledged the technological prowess and extolled the new generation of fossil fuel explorers, he didn't back down. "The pore throats in shale rocks are 20,000 times smaller than a human hair. On these rocks, we've bet our energy future," he said.

We need to shift our energy foundation to renewable sources, he believed, and toward more broadly distributed sources, not just big coal plants or even big wind farms.

In the Wood River Valley of Idaho, that same discussion is going on. Writing in Idaho Mountain Express of Ketchum, local resident Kiki Tidwell, a clean tech angel investor, makes the case for greater investment in local generation.

Idaho Power, the utility serving the area, has announced it may need to start rolling brownouts and blackouts unless new transmission is created to import more power. A substantial amount of power comes from hydroelectric generation, but drought has made that a less reliable source. A new transmission line likely means additional electricity produced by coal plants in Montana or Oregon.

Tidwell offers a different vision: "The cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley can take the same $14 million (the local component for the transmission) and accomplish a lot more toward energy security for their communities through distributed generation (including solar) and battery storage."

At Telluride, there's also talk about increased distributed generation. In Mountain Village, the newer town located along the ski slopes, the town council recently entertained a proposal to levy a two per cent fee on electricity bills. The fee would generate $137,000 per year, with the money going to various projects intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But while the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise have had vacation homes in the town, a majority of councillors rejected the idea. Mayor Dan Jansen said that electricity costs are projected to rise five to seven per cent next year. "That's starting to add up to a significant amount for some people," he said.

Jansen holds the view that greenhouse gas reduction efforts are best formulated in concert with other local governments. He thinks some money can be set aside for reduction projects next year. Among the ideas is purchase of more solar panels at an installation in the Paradox Valley, 130 kilometres to the west.

In Aspen, town officials in 2008 set out to explore the idea of whether the heat of the earth can be tapped to produce heat for buildings in lieu of natural gas. The idea was premised on the fact that miners of the 19th century had noticed that some mines had more heat than others.

But an exploratory well that reached 457 metres revealed temperatures of just 32C degrees. That's the lowest temperature for which a geothermal heating utility might be worthwhile. And to generate electricity, temperatures would have to be closer to 82C degrees, said Jeff Rice, utilities energy efficiency manager.

More analysis will be required during coming months before the city considers the viability of a geothermal utility district, city officials say.

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