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Mountain News: Jackson takes economic approach to reducing greenhouse gases

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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.

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