Aspen, Colo., Takes on Global Warming


Nov. 14, 2006 — -- 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.

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.

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.

"As long as there is snow on the mountain," we point out. "Given scientific projections that global warming will leave Aspen snow-free before century's end if the world doesn't curb carbon emissions."

"Right. That could be a flaw in our plan," Schendler said. "What we're seeing lately is that it's hotter and the snow evaporates, so it doesn't run off. Then we make less money and less power."

"We've created a solution to the climate problem that's gonna be undone later by the climate problem," he said.

Schendler added that they would still be able to count on this generator to replace some coal-fired power -- albeit in decreasing amounts -- for at least a decade or two.

"We think about global warming as this big global problem, but the only solutions are local," said Canary Initiative member Randy Udall, the director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency.

"What's that house producing? That car?" he said. "What are our power plants producing? What does that industry need to keep running?"

More and more people in the valley have started asking the same questions as the Canary team holds town meetings and is the subject of articles in the local paper.

"The headline after our community meeting in August was 'Earth to Aspen: Take the Lead on Global Warming!'" said Canary project manager Dan Richardson. "The awareness level is up."

Sobering even more valley folk was the news from a new Aspen Climate Impact Assessment report commissioned by the team.

It calculated that if humanity didn't soon curb emissions, the climate in Aspen's snowy mountains could change before the end of the century to that found in Amarillo, Texas.

The report also detailed how snowfall on the upper sections of the city's lucrative ski slopes was already down 17 percent in just 25 years, and that winter was arriving 18 days later and ending 10 days earlier -- threatening millions of tourist dollars.

This grim news has prompted more people, increasingly eager to do something, to discover some relative good news -- at least for their pocket books.

Residents learned that by simply focusing on power efficiency -- turning off lights, sealing heat leaks, buying energy-efficient appliances -- they could reduce the "carbon footprint" of their homes and other buildings by 30 percent or more. And thus take a big chunk out of their power bill.

One big money and emissions saver, Richardson says, is "unplugging the phantom power. All those adapters and appliances we leave plugged in draw power even when you don't use them. Now you can even buy new power strips with motion sensors that will turn off everything plugged into them after everyone's left the room."

Even before the Canary Initiative organized, various individuals had taken it upon themselves to curb emissions.

Tom Golec, inveterate tinkerer and hydropower buff, had long dreamed of harnessing the power of the mountain creek behind his house.

Four years ago, he finally persuaded the local utility to let him try, and he dammed his creek and put in a small generator.

"I've produced over the last four years, almost 900,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity," he told ABC News.

He feeds that power back into the grid, averaging, he says, "a profit of about $12,000 a year."

Nowadays, if you look down on Aspen Valley from the area's towering mountains, you'll see growing proof of another popular initiative: new homes built with solar cells on their roofs.

The cells feed power back into the local grid, saving money -- even making money when the homes sit empty during the day.

Many of the initiatives cropping up in Aspen are adaptable anywhere.

The Canary team offers how-to advice, and there are a host of other Web sites that offer helpful ideas on what you can do to help combat global warming. Click here for more information.

Valley folk are attacking the low-hanging fruit -- obvious opportunities to cut emissions -- or putting it on notice.

"There are a lot of opportunities out at the airport," Worcester said. "We are asking air companies to use those newer planes that are 30 percent more fuel efficient."

"And all those machines and vehicles that run around the airport? They can go hybrid or better," he said.

In 2004, the Canary Initiative offered a $100 year-end bonus to employees in any of the city's 22 government departments that cut its carbon footprint by 1 percent … and another $100 if the entire government met that goal.

The results were striking. "In only 18 months, the city government's overall carbon footprint fell by more than 10 percent," Richardson said.

The city even passed an exorbitant "Robin Hood Tax" on Aspenites who indulged in power-draining extras such as in-driveway heating systems to melt snow in front of their homes -- often vacation properties they rarely visited.

Those tax revenues, in turn, are spent on new energy-efficiency measures.

"Now comes the hard part," city attorney Worcester said.

"In the next couple of months, the city council will have to vote on just how serious they really are about all this," he said. "Will they try to make Aspen completely carbon neutral in, say, 25 years? Because that would mean, for example, building more local micro-hydro and buying more clean power, like wind power -- all of which could cost a lot."

Some critics have said that even if Aspen becomes entirely carbon neutral, its effect on global warming will be virtually nil, because the warming atmosphere is a constantly swirling borderless mass enwrapping the entire globe.

"Well, that's true," Worcester said. "We're a small community of 7,500 people. We're not going to affect global change by our emissions cuts."

"But if we can get other communities to do the same thing that we're doing," he said, "and then those communities convince other communities to do it, sooner or later, we'll find a solution to this problem."

Worcester shared some news that bore heavily on all this.

"The kids tell me," he said, "that they're hoping to give us a second grandchild."

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