WRIGHT — A prominent Wyoming community has stepped up its efforts to become more energy efficient and reduce its carbon footprint.

The town has earned the Tree City USA honor several years running. It’s buying green tags to switch from coal-based electricity to wind, solar and biomass to power all of its government facilities.

And, its vehicle fleet includes an olive-green, ultra-fuel-efficient Prius.

It’s not Jackson. It’s not Cody, Dubois or any other tourist destination town.

It’s Wright, a community built by and sustained by the most prolific coal-producing district in North America.

And now the town of Wright has challenged its fellow Wyoming communities to become more environmentally sustainable.

“I’m not doing this because I’m a liberal. I’m a right-wing conservative,” said Wright Mayor Kelly Hand, a former highway patrolman and former career military man.

“As a town, we want to be progressive and responsible.”

Wright began in the mid-1970s when Atlantic Richfield needed a place to house workers for its Black Thunder coal mine. It bought several acres from the Wright family, and several mobile homes were parked in a wide, treeless prairie in southern Campbell County.

Today, four of the Powder River Basin’s 15 active coal mines produce 256 million tons of coal annually outside Wright’s front door. In this town of 1,600, more than 75 percent rely on coal mining as their primary source of income.

Others work in the oil, gas and uranium industries, or serve those energy industries.

Folks here have a “hyper-awareness” of the global warming issue, Hand explained, because they work under an increasingly stringent set of environmental rules. In Hand’s view, coal is moving toward cleaner technologies and will continue to serve the bulk of America’s energy needs.

Sustainability, said Hand, isn’t an either-or choice. The nation needs coal, and it needs renewable sources of energy. In terms of responsible government, conservation must rule every aspect of managing a community’s resources.

“When you look at the long run, we’re going to save money and reduce our carbon footprint,” Hand said.

Green tags

Wright’s greening efforts began about a year ago when Hand and other town leaders approached Powder River Energy Corp., the local rural electric provider, and asked for advice on how to reduce energy use. PRECorp was introducing its green tag program, which allows customers to voluntarily pay a premium rate for electricity from wind, solar and biomass.

One green tag represents 100 kilowatt hours per month. The average residential customer might use three to six tags worth of electricity per month, according to PRECorp. Each green tag costs an extra 50 cents per month.

After an inventory of the town’s facilities, Wright officials decided to enroll in the green tag program, making the switch from coal to renewables. The switch will reduce the town’s carbon emissions by 345 tons per year, which is equal to planting 1,310 trees or eliminating 2,669 barrels of foreign oil, according to PRECorp.

Hand began conversations with his counterparts in Newcastle, Cheyenne and Lusk, who helped Wright design its own composting program. Wright is now spending tens of thousands of dollars to replace its old sodium vapor streetlights with downward-refracting globe lamps.

The town launched its own recycling program, and even began converting its vehicle fleet to fuel-efficient models. In July it purchased a Toyota Prius. The town’s old Ford Expedition is now in semi-retirement.

On a recent trip to Lusk, the Prius got 52 miles per gallon, Hand said.

“If I’d driven the Expedition I would have had to stop three times to fill up,” he said.

Sustainable pride

Hand said it was ongoing conversations with local ranchers in the area that got him thinking about conservation. He was impressed with their conviction to be good stewards of the land.

John Floccini is longtime operator of the Durham Buffalo Ranch just outside Wright. He employs holistic management practices on the ranch. He’d told Hand about his efforts to develop wind energy.

Coal-bed methane development currently provides revenue for the ranch, but it’s not a sustainable source of revenue. Floccini’s idea is to take some of that revenue and invest in something that is sustainable.

The goal of self-sufficiency appealed to Hand, who considers himself progressively conservative. It also resonated throughout the community. Hand said folks here exhibit a particular sense of small-town pride because, as blue-collar workers, they’re fully invested in their community.

Floccini said he’s not surprised by Wright’s sustainability efforts.

“Mayor Hand is providing some good leadership in that regard,” Floccini said.

Hand provided a tour of Wright in the Prius, pointing out neighborhoods that used to have shabby-looking yards. Now, neighbors are cleaning up, trying to out-do the next.

“It becomes contagious,” Hand said.

Wright is conducting water audits to search for conservation opportunities. The council has plans for a second water fountain in the town’s fishing pond, which will be lighted red, white and blue at night. There are tentative plans for a botanical garden there as well.

Now, baseball games are played on the county-maintained fields under old, inefficient lights. Hand wants to refurbish an old baseball field in the center of town, and showcase efficient lighting and a small-town, Mayberry atmosphere.

“My whole mission is to make Wright the most progressive town in the state,” he said.

Energy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer can be reached at (307) 577-6069 or dustin.bleizeffer@casperstartribune.net.