Groups powwow for a cool county

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By Katy Korkos

When the Pajarito Group of the Sierra Club held its second annual Sustainability Powwow at the Sheriffs Posse Shack on Saturday, it hosted several local groups who share a vision for a healthier planet.

“The federal government has not taken the lead to reduce our carbon footprint,” Mark Jones said. Jones serves on the executive committee of the local chapter, and described the focus of this year’s Powwow as trying to gain support for Los Alamos County to join the Sierra Club’s nationwide “Cool Cities” initiative.

The “Cool Counties” initiative consists of three key elements: The first asks county governments to commit to reducing their operational greenhouse gas emission by first creating an inventory of their local emissions and then planning and implementing policies and programs to achieve significant, measurable and sustainable reductions. The second element asks the local governments to work with regional and state governments for regional plans, and the third element calls on counties to urge congress and the administration to enact national programs of both limits and incentives for the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Councilor Robert Gibson said, “Fundamentally, we have two problems: one is global climate change, and the second is a finite supply of energy (from oil and coal). They both can be addressed at the same time,” Gibson said. He described the county’s efforts in the wake of a sustainability study as including the transit system, conservation measures and looking at conservation measures on a utility scale. Gibson added that the council would consider a proposal to create an environmental services division within county government at its Mar. 18 meeting.

“This is fundamentally a technical challenge,” Gibson said. “It’s made-to-order for this community. From hardcore science to garage tinkering, it’s an opportunity for this community to show the way to the world. We can change the world as much in the 21st Century as we did in the 20th Century.”

Regina Wheeler, whose area of expertise is in environmental engineering, manages the county’s solid waste division. Wheeler listed a whole slate of county programs that have contributed to saving energy, from installing LED (light emitting diode) traffic lights and improving waste and recycling programs to specifying green building techniques and materials in county buildings.

Wheeler said that the traffic signal LEDs saved enough energy in the first year of operation to pay for their installation.

Wheeler has seen significant gains in recycling in the county since the recycling roll carts were delivered to county residents last fall.

“Now 80 percent of the population recycles,” Wheeler said, “where before it was only 60 percent. The amount of material recycled has gone up 40 percent.”

“Support legislation that helps,” Wheeler said. “The state doesn’t have adequate incentives for renewable energy.” She said that local governments are not offered the same incentives for energy savings that private citizens and businesses can get, making it more expensive for the county to conserve.

County conservation officer Matt Dickens showed several ways that individuals could have a major impact on the amount of carbon released into the environment with simple measures.

Dickens pointed out that water savings can be directly tied to energy savings, to the tune of 11.286 pounds of carbon per 1000 gallons of water used, when one factors in the cost (in carbon) of the electricity it takes to pump the water to homes and pump it again to the wastewater treatment plant. “It takes 5 kilowatt hours to pump 1000 gallons to your house, and 4.5 kilowatt hours to get it back down to the treatment plant,” Dickens said.

Dickens went on to describe the large carbon savings that can be had by changing out three incandescent light bulbs with CFL light bulbs. If three 100-watt incandescent bulbs are replaced by one 23w CFL bulb, one 20w CFL bulb and 13w CFL bulb, carbon emissions can be reduced by 1.6 tons, Dickens said.

A third simple step advocated by Dickens involves signing up for LA Green, a program of the Utilities Department that uses only electricity generated from renewable sources such as wind, solar and qualifying hydroelectric generation.

The Energy Star website from the US Environmental Protection Agency states that CFLs use about 75 percent less energy and last up to 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs.

School board member Jody Benson told the group of the Los Alamos Public Schools initiatives in greening the schools, which include improving air quality in the schools and providing better lighting, which improves students' concentration.

Ten-year old conservationists Ciara and Olivia are participating in the 'Plastic Bag Free Los Alamos' campaign, and happily gave instructions on recycling used lightweight plastic bags into sturdy reusable bags.

"I think we should stop using plastic bags," Ciara said.

"I think we should do this to help us, and the whole environment like plants and animals. They are our food source, we've got to keep them alive too," Olivia said.

In New Mexico, Ruidoso, Taos, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Capitan, Albuquerque and Alamogordo have already signed on to the program.

Los Alamos Cooperative Market, Los Alamos Sustainable Energy, Los Alamos National Bank, Green Wheels and the New Mexico Clean Air and Water Foundation also participated in the Powwow.