Aspen, Colo., Takes on Global Warming

When you first meet conservatively dressed, bespectacled new grandfather John Worcester, you're not surprised to learn he's the city attorney in Aspen, Colo.

He's soft-spoken, mild-mannered, intently focused and observant. And he's doing battle with what 11 national academies of science say is one of the gravest emergencies civilization has ever faced: global warming.

Under Worcester's quiet leadership, Aspen's city government has already cut its planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions by 10.5 percent in only 18 months -- a rare achievement.

Yet Another Rant on the Radio

It was two years ago that Worcester, disgusted by a talk radio host calling global warming a hoax, set out to educate himself on the subject.

What he learned worried him, and he asked a few neighbors for help. He gathered a local climate science analyst, an alternative energy executive, a ski slope manager, and a young resource efficiency expert.

They called themselves and their nascent effort the "Canary Initiative."

From Day 1, the goal of the initiative was to get Aspen on the road to being "carbon neutral."

All homes, buildings, streetlights, water pumps, vehicles, even airplanes, would be powered with energy that was not created by burning coal, oil or gas. The burning of coal, oil and gas releases planet-warming greenhouse gases (GHGs), especially carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air.

Meeting over kitchen tables and in each other's family rooms, members of the self-starting team were determined to go for the whole prize: to stop global warming.

But why?

"Because," Worcester told ABC News outside his Town Hall office, "I want to be able to look my grandchildren in the face and say I did what I could."

Not knowing exactly where to begin, the team began. Members realized that to monitor and calculate any progress, they'd need to know just how much GHG-emitting power was used by each building, machine, vehicle and plane.

They quickly learned that 95 percent of Colorado's electricity came from coal-burning power plants, which are major GHG emitters.

A couple of scientists created an "emissions map" of their city, which revealed that 32 percent of Aspen's "carbon footprint" came from heating, cooling and lighting buildings; 25 percent, from vehicles; and 40 percent, from air travel in and out of the local airport.

Then they put the word out that they were looking for ideas -- any ideas -- to help cut GHG emissions.

Public Participation

The ideas came in from surprising sources, including a part-time employee of the Aspen Skiing Corp.

"He was this rough-around-the-edges, hard-drinking, snow-making guy," said ski slope manager and Canary member Auden Schendler.

"I was asking employees for ideas to cut emissions, and he called me and said, 'Let's capture spring runoff to generate power,'" Schendler said. "And I said, 'That's too expensive. You'd need to put a pipe in the ground. You'd need to make water storage, and we don't have that!' And he said, 'Yes we do! It's called a snow-making system, and we're not using it in the spring, so let's use it for making power!'"

So they did.

Now, at the bottom of a high Aspen ski run sits a tiny shed housing a generator turned by spring melt, which rushes down the same tubes that in the fall and winter channel water up the slopes to make snow.

"It makes enough power to run 60 homes year-round," Schendler told ABC News.

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