Aspen utility poised to achieve milestone of Canary Initiative
Now comes the really hard part
by Allen Best
ASPEN, Colo. – Pop quiz here: What do Greensburg, Kan., Burlington, Vt., and Aspen, Colo., have in common?
Nothing—yet. But with the purchase of electricity generated on giant wind farms in the Great Plains expected later this year, public officials in Aspen believe they will be able to claim consistent 100 percent electrical generation from renewable sources for the city’s electrical utility, one of just a handful of cities in the United States. Aspen Electric delivers about two-thirds of the electricity consumed in the city of 6,000.
The Vermont city achieved the milestone in 2014 and the Kansas town several years earlier after it was wiped out by a tornado.
This 100 percent renewable goal is the first major achievement in the Canary Initiative, the climate change manifesto adopted by city officials in 2006 at the urging of then-city attorney John Worcester. Tired of hearing right-wing talk-show hosts denying the science of global warming, he urged the city council to adopt a series of goals, some of them involving Aspen serving as a model for other communities. The first goal was for the 100 percent renewable portfolio by the end of 2015.
Now retired in suburban Denver, Worcester says he believes that the takeaway message should be that “a small community, when it puts its mind to it, can achieve what a lot of large communities should be doing.”
Aspen city officials also announced recently that reductions in energy intensity of municipal operations were tracking in line with Canary Initiative goals. From 2004 to 2014, the city government’s greenhouse gas pollution declined 42 percent. Some of the gain was directly attributed to the loss of carbon intensity of the electrical supply.
But Aspen’s larger work remains in front of it. The next steps involve reducing community greenhouse gases, including those incurred by heating homes and businesses, transportation, and even a portion of flights from its customers and second-home owners.
While a reduction of 6 percent has already been achieved, the Canary Initiative had identified a 30 percent reduction by 2020, as compared to the 2004 baseline.
After that, it gets harder yet: a 80 percent reduction by 2050.
Long history of renewables
Aspen embraced renewable energy at its birth as a mining town in the 1880s simply because it was less expensive than hauling coal on wagons from distant mines. By 1885, just six years after the first log cabins, Aspen had installed a hydroelectric power plant, allowing the new town to have the first electrified street lights west of the Mississippi River. The railroad didn’t arrive until two years later.
Power driven by the local streams continued to energize Aspen until 1959, and soon after the last hydroelectric plant was dismembered.
In the 1980s, the city returned to hydroelectricity. First, the city paid for installation of turbines in a nearby federal dam, Ruedi, and then in the 1990s put a turbine in Maroon Creek, just outside the town limits.
In recent years, the town has invested in wind production on the Great Plains while turning over many other stones in an effort to achieve a 100 percent renewables portfolio.
Some ideas have worked out better than others. One was to essentially restore the hydroelectric system that had been removed in the 1960s from Castle Creek. A 2007 bond vote passed by a 72 percent margin, indicating broad support for the plan. The Castle Creek hydroelectric plan foundered, however. Some opposition was driven by not-in-my-backyard sensibilities, but there were also genuine concerns about impacts to aquatic life in the creek. Adding to the city’s problems were missteps leading to the perception that the city officials had failed to be transparent with their motives.
A non-binding 2011 plebiscite regarding the Castle Creek hydro project was a major setback to the city’s ambitions. Even Amory Lovins, the local renewable energy guru, threw cold water on the plans. One local opponent dismissed it as “nostalgia.” This was after about $7 million had been spent on the project, including a turbine designed specifically for the installation planned below Highway 82, at the town’s western entrance. By a narrow margin, voters asked the city to shelve the project. The city has done just that, at least for now. The turbine is in cold storage.
Ridgway was a far easier proposition. A dam completed in the late 1980s on the Uncompahgre River, south of Montrose, it was retrofitted with hydroelectric turbines after Aspen committed to buying the hydroelectric production from the dam during the non-summer months. This winter, the plant has further reduced Aspen’s dependence on carbon-based electricity.
That leaves Aspen at 85 percent renewables on an annual average. Various options were examined, including landfill gas in Iowa. But Phil Overeynder, utilities engineer-special projects, says wind from turbines in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Wyoming will likely get Aspen over the finish line.That leaves Aspen at 85 percent renewables on an annual average. Various options were examined, including landfill gas in Iowa. But Phil Overeynder, utilities engineer-special projects, says wind from turbines in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Wyoming will likely get Aspen over the finish line.
85% of the way there
That leaves Aspen at 85 percent renewables on an annual average. Various options were examined, including landfill gas in Iowa. But Phil Overeynder, utilities engineer-special projects, says wind from turbines in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Wyoming will likely get Aspen over the finish line.
Utility officials estimate it will cost Aspen $284,000, possibly more, to reach its 100 percent renewable goal. Still, Aspen has the 5th lowest electrical rates among the 55 municipal utilities in Colorado. Most of the more expensive municipal utilities draw most of their power from coal-fired plants.
Even when Aspen gets to 100 percent renewables, it will still depend upon electrical backup in the grid, which will inevitably include some carbon-based electricity, points out Will Dolan, the utilities director.
The city utility delivers electricity to about halkf of the electricity used in the city, to 3,000 customers, in the downtown and older neighborhoods. Newer neighborhoods as well as the ski areas are supplied by Holy Cross Energy, an electrical co-op that has aggressive renewable energy goals of its own, aiming to hit 20 percent. However, it will still remain 80 percent reliant on coal and natural gas.
Now comes the hard part
Monumental challenges will remain ahead for Aspen even after it reaches the 100 percent renewables mark. The next goal, to reduce community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent, will require cuts in energy use.
Small steps have been taken. Recently, for example, the city announced that competition among eight lodges had yielded energy savings equivalent to the needs of 26 average homes. One of the properties, Hotel Durant, undertook major air sealing, insulation, and window upgrades that resulted in a 28 percent reduction in its monthly gas bills.
Even a relatively new building, the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Limelight Hotel, achieved notable savings. “It never hurts when there is healthy competition that creates positive results on all fronts,” said the company’s energy manager, Aaron Shaffer.
Other efforts during the last 20 years have been led by the non-profit Community Office for Resource Efficiency. The agency has collected $12 million through the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program, which levies a tax on large houses and those with outdoor energy-intensive features, such as swimming pools. CORE has redistributed $8 million for local renewable energy projects but also energy efficiency.
Mona Newton, the executive director of CORE, points to a new program targeting big buildings that offers rebates of up to $2,500 or 25 percent for projects. One recent achievement: the chandeliers in the Wheeler Opera House have been retrofitted with LED lights.
These and many other efforts help explain why Aspen’s population has grown and the economy has boomed but demand for electricity has been flat.
But cutting energy is “not easy work,” as Newton says. She sees only “silver BBs” as solutions, a variety of small answers, and the ultimate need for a price assigned to carbon emissions, to steer the market toward non-carbon choices, greater efficiencies, and energy-saving technologies.
“That’s what will get people’s attention, when we have higher utility prices,” says Newton. “And we need some regulations that will go beyond the building codes, that will require buildings to be net-zero, or at least darned close.”
Buildings are a major challenge, says Ashley Perl, director of the Canary Initiative. Convincing building managers to invest in high-efficiency boilers and other improvements with long paybacks is a hard sell. “There’s just no traction there,” she says.
Next up: transportation
Looking toward the 2020 goal, she sees the most immediate gains being in transportation, which is responsible for 40 percent of Aspen’s greenhouse gas emissions. Perl says bus transportation in the Roaring Fork Valley and within Aspen can be stepped up, parking fees raised to discourage single-occupancy car use, and other steps that will require strong political will by elected officials.
Taking the long view, she says that 2020 goal might be achieved by incremental changes, “but in trying to make the 2050 goal of 80 percent reduction, there’s nothing incremental to it. It’s a complete change.”
Perl admits she has no idea how Aspen will get there, but says it’s important in striving to hit-short term goals not to take actions that preclude long-term solutions.
This story is from the Feb. 25 issue of Mountain Town News, a subscription-based e-zine. Please consider subscribing and having it delivered to your e-mail inbox.