Aspen’s plan for 19th century solution to 21st century problem now in storage
By Allen Best
The 2012 Fourth of July parade in Aspen was apple-pie middle America. There were Rotarians and librarians, prancing horses and dirt bikers. The mayor passed out flags. Cheers erupted as veterans passed, their signs like bookmarks in American history from World War II to Afghanistan.
Then came some unusual floats: “Aspen hydro fish-cally irresponsible,” said one sign. Another: “When we divert, the stream gets hurt.” Finally, on a convertible: “Protecting Nature is Patriotic.”
Inside, draped in an American flag, sat Connie Harvey. Since 1958, the matriarch of Aspen’s environmental community has fought against miners, loggers, even the local ski company on behalf of wilderness and rivers — often with local politicians on her side.
But those allies have become adversaries. In a move that splintered Aspen’s enthusiastic environmental community, city officials began developing a small hydroelectric plant that would partially de-water short sections of two popular mountain streams next to town, Maroon and Castle creeks, one of which flows by Harvey’s home. Harvey calls it a “devastating attack” that threatens a “thriving complex of aquatic and terrestrial life.” Her views are shared by American Rivers, state and local chapters of Trout Unlimited, and Saving our Streams, a group made up of Castle Creek property owners.
The city holds that environmental impacts would be minimal, and that the 1.175-megawatt Castle Creek Energy Center is key to generating more energy locally from clean sources. The city utility, which delivers half of Aspen’s electricity, will soon be 89 percent carbon-free, thanks to the imminent addition of turbines to an existing Colorado dam. Castle Creek would bring it nearly to its goal of 100 percent carbon-free by 2015.
In November 2012, Aspenites narrowly voted to abandon the project. While the vote was advisory and thus not legally binding, for now, hydro is stalled as the city considers its options.
It was supposed to be an easy part of Aspen’s Canary Initiative, which laid out steps to improve energy efficiency and boost renewable energy to reduce local carbon emissions 30 percent by 2020 as compared to 2004 levels, and 80 percent by 2050. Aspen is vulnerable to climate change because its four ski areas depend on long, snowy winters; the resorts also give the city a pulpit. “We think that, while we can’t turn around the situation globally, we can deliver a powerful message to an influential group of visitors,” says outgoing Mayor Mick Ireland. (Term-limited, he was replaced in spring by Steve Skadron.)
But as the fight over even this small hydro project shows, such ambitions are proving difficult to execute here and elsewhere as communities grapple with competing environmental values, institutional barriers, financial limits and general resistance to change. Aspen was supposed to have reduced its total greenhouse gas emissions 11 percent by 2011, says Canary Initiative director Lauren McDonell, but it’s only about halfway there. And “it’s getting increasingly challenging to move the needle.”
Aspen was the first town west of the Mississippi with hydroelectric streetlights. The controversial new proposal would use the same footprint of existing reservoirs, dams and pipeline routes from a small plant on Castle Creek that provided nearly all of Aspen’s electricity from 1892 to 1958, when the city began buying cheaper power from sources elsewhere in the West, including coal plants.
Aspen got back in the hydro business in the mid-’80s for environmental reasons, installing turbines in Ruedi Dam, 20 miles away. That project, another small plant on Maroon Creek several miles upstream of Aspen, and other dams in the West supplied Aspen’s municipal utility with roughly 42 percent of its electricity in 2011; another 30 percent came from wind, primarily in Nebraska.
The city stepped up efforts to scrub its power supply in 2006. Climate models had begun suggesting narrowed ski seasons by 2050, and perhaps no skiing by 2100. According to a city study, the number of frost-free summer days has expanded from 73 to 107 during the quarter-century before 2008.
Given the existing infrastructure and Aspen’s hydro-savvy, reviving the old Castle Creek plant seemed the most immediately attainable goal in the city’s climate strategy. In 2007, a large majority of voters authorized $5.5 million in bonds for the project. Steel pipes 42 inches across and stretching 4,000 feet would replace the old wood flumes. Water would be diverted upstream of Aspen into a small reservoir, then down through the pipes to a new power plant smaller than many Aspen houses.
Nobody disputes the availability of water during spring runoff. Even after existing diversions, peak Castle Creek flows average 650 cubic feet per second (cfs), and Maroon’s average 750. The new plant would divert up to 52 total cfs. The problem lies in low-flow months, mostly during winter, when Castle averages 15 cfs, and Maroon 25. Despite holding more senior rights, the city promised to keep flows at or above 12 cfs in Castle and 14 in Maroon, in accordance with the state’s instream flow rights. A city study found “no measurable impacts” were expected to stream health, the fish community, or macroinvertebrates from the reduced flows, but two Pitkin County studies found the city’s data too narrow to draw confident conclusions.
Besides, hydro opponents like Harvey and others insist that ensuring minimum instream flow is no guarantee. “The science of stream ecology has conclusively shown that maintaining a minimum flow will not keep a stream healthy,” says Ken Neubecker, former president of Colorado Trout Unlimited. And saying the streams’ health must be sacrificed to fight climate change is, he adds, akin to the Vietnam War logic of destroying villages to save them.
Some also accuse the city of trying to circumvent federal review. In 2008, Aspen applied for a licensing waiver from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which permits hydroelectric proposals, claiming a simple resumption of the decommissioned plant. FERC had suggested the waiver was a possibility but denied the application because the city had abandoned the plant. In 2010, the city began building one of the reservoir pipelines that would feed the hydro project, arguing that it was a necessary emergency drainline, and applied for a waiver from FERC environmental review. Others saw devious intentions. “We know when somebody is trying to cheat,” says John Seebech, Washington D.C.-based director of American Rivers’ Hydropower Reform Initiative.
As the fight over the hydro plant dragged on, costs nearly doubled to $10.5 million by last summer. Still, Castle Creek would deliver extremely low-cost power over the 75- to 100-year life of the plant, says city manager Steve Barwick.
Owners of water rights in Castle Creek, including fossil fuel magnate Bill Koch, have even sued Aspen on grounds that it abandoned its water rights for hydroelectric production when it decommissioned the old plant.
The power the city wants can easily be generated elsewhere, at solar or wind farms, Harvey said soon after her Fourth of July appearance last summer. “I’m sure they meant well when they started this, but they’re so locked in to it.”
Auden Schendler, vice president for sustainability with the Aspen Skiing Co., calls it an “iconic battle between those who really get climate change and the need for immediate action and models for success, and those who did great work fighting traditional environmental battles but who are misunderstanding or deprioritizing the crux issue of our time.”
Aspen is hardly alone in struggling to shrink its carbon dependence. Inspired by the 2005 example of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, more than 1,000 mayors in the United States — including 64 in the Rocky Mountain states — have launched efforts to attain the goals of the Kyoto Protocol. That agreement committed participants to make their best efforts to knock back greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent by 2012 as compared to 1990 levels. Inventories will not be completed until this summer, although it appears the rapid switching from coal power to natural gas may help a larger number of communities than expected meet the target, officials say.
Boulder adopted the nation’s first carbon tax and pioneered a program making it easier for homeowners to borrow money for energy efficiency upgrades and renewables. Still, it’s only halfway to Kyoto’s short-term goal, and Boulder regional sustainability manager Jonathan Koehn says officials are now looking to rapidly decarbonize the electrical supply. The city may split from the privately owned utility now serving it to produce its own electricity, but the path is uncertain.
Ruthie Brown is one of the Aspen project’s staunchest backers. Her grandfather helped install the original plants. “There’s no doubt that it can be done in an environmentally sound way,” she says.
With that in mind, Brown helped convene a mediation session in 2011. The resulting agreement calls for the plant to sit idle during low-flow months for three years while more data on the relationship between stream health and flow levels are collected. Local government and state wildlife representatives would then decide whether to allow greater diversions. Impacts would be evaluated again after the sixth year. Only then, and after a unanimous vote, would the project operate at full capacity.
But with the plant now in limbo, the city council is unsure how to proceed. In January, officials invited the public to submit alternative projects, so long as they fit within the 2015 Canary deadline.
In response, they got a 35-page earful from local heavy-hitter Amory Lovins, longtime climate activist and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit that promotes more efficient use of resources. “A cheaper or otherwise superior solution that takes longer to complete may provide greater net public good,” he wrote, advising the city to keep improving energy efficiency instead of continuing with the hydro plant.
Even supporters admit the city’s process was flawed and, perhaps, rushed. Despite a seeming voter mandate and stakeholder meetings, says the city’s first Canary Initiative director, Dan Richardson, Aspen tried to push past opposition rather than reach broad consensus — a possible lesson for other climate activists. For now, the city’s $1.46 million custom-built turbine sits in storage.
This story was originally published by High Country News in early April 2013.