Aspen Electric joins most exclusive of clubs: utilities with 100% renewables
by Allen Best
On the face of it, silver-heeled Aspen, Colo. and salt-of-the-earth Greensburg, Kan., would seem to have virtually nothing in common.
Aspen draws billionaires the way honey draws bears. It’s a gorgeous place of splashing creeks, a red-bricked downtown, and in the background a row of 14,000-foot peaks. Private jets costing $50 million often line the tarmac at the local airport. Nearly three-dozen frequent visitors or part-time residents have indicated interest in buying the newest generation of Gulfstream jets. The cost per jet: $65 million.
Few people travel to Greensburg for leisure. Located in pancake-flat south-central Kansas, the town’s greatest shout-out was a 109-foot-deep shaft billed as the world’s largest hand-dug well. That changed in 2007, when a tornado leveled 95 percent of the buildings. The town of 1,600 began rebuilding with 21st century techniques, striving to become one of the most sustainable municipalities on the planet.
As part of that transformation, Greensburg began drawing its electricity in 2008 from a bank of 10 new wind turbines located four miles away. Oil and gas production remains a staple of the local economy, says Mayor Bob Dixson, but the wind that ruffles the fields of alfalfa, corn, and soybeans is free. It averages 17 mph.
In August, Aspen Electric joined Greensburg and a third municipal electricity utility in Burlington, Vt., in becoming only the third (please note asterisks below) to be 100 percent renewable.
What’s notable, however, has been the cost. Aspen Electric did this without jacking up residential rates. Aspen residential ratepayers have among the lowest residential rates in Colorado, a state whose average rate of 12.46 cents per kilowatt-hour during June, the most recent month available, lagged the national average of 12.93 cents, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
(For the record, Aspen Electric has 6,000 customers, or roughly half to two-thirds of Aspen, the municipality, and none of the ski area. They are, for reasons too complex to explain here, served by Holy Cross Energy).
The bottom-line message from this trio of municipal utilities, peas out of very different pods, is that achieving 100 percent renewable portfolios is not so pie-in-the-sky as some might think. Other municipalities in Texas, Colorado and especially in California—including much bigger ones—have adopted similar goals.
Aspen’s path to 100 percent
Aspen got there by starting early to develop local resources. Driven by a desire for energy security, the city government in the 1980s committed $4.5 million to retrofit a nearby federal dam called Ruedi with five megawatts of generating capacity. The city utility in the early 1990s invested in another local hydro project on Maroon Creek, just outside of town (see photo next page), in addition to buying power from Colorado River Basin dams. Half of the utility’s electricity now comes from hydro—including, for the first time last winter, the Ridgway Dam in west-central Colorado. As long as snow and rain fall, the fuel is free. Once the capital investment is paid, the electricity becomes crazily cheap—in the case of that first dam retrofit about half the cost of coal generation.
About the time it adopted the Canary Initiative, the city’s ambitious greenhouse reduction goal, in 2005, Aspen began buying power from wind turbines in Nebraska and South Dakota, the source of 49 percent of the utility’s power.
The final 1 percent of Aspen’s portfolio comes from electricity created by burning methane from an Iowa landfill.
“It’s important to acknowledge what your comparative advantage is in terms of renewable energy in your area,” says Will Dolan, the former renewable energy manager for Aspen Electric. “It could be landfill gas, it could be biomass, it could be geothermal. It could be any number of resources.”
Testimony in Vermont
In Vermont, more testimony that an all-renewables portfolio need not strap ratepayers comes from Burlington, a city of 42,000. It’s a classic New England place, the white spire of the landmark Unitarian church towering over the downtown, the site of the first Ben & Jerry’s just a few blocks away.
“The common wisdom of renewable power is that it’s expensive and that it will cost customers a lot. But we serve 100 percent of our power from renewable generation, and we have not raised our rates since 2009, nor do we anticipate raising our rates anytime in the near future,” says Neale Lunderville, general manager of the municipal utility.
“People always assume that there were a lot of special deals, a lot of public-private partnerships and outside-the-lines deals, “ says Lunderville. “The truth is that what we accomplished is through very standard financing and power-purchase types of agreements. There’s nothing particularly complex about how we bought this power. There’s not a lot of exotica in this at all.”
Critics can find fault with these electrical portfolios, and they have. Some have challenged use of biomass by Burlington Electric. Aspen’s power comes partly from giant dams that have drowned Glen Canyon and other treasured chasms of the West.
Too, some electricity in each of these towns inevitably comes from coal or gas. That’s true even when the utility pays for transmission, called wheeling, such as Aspen does for use of high-voltage lines from Nebraska. Think of this like putting money in the bank someplace and then withdrawing $100 at an ATM somewhere else. You don’t get the exact same bills you deposit.
All three utilities also employ a financial device called renewable energy credits, which allows utilities to claim environmental attributes of the energy generation without having the electrons themselves. Using this financial device, Palo Alto, Calif., also claimed carbon neutrality in its electrical supply beginning in 2013. Seattle City Light achieved carbon neutrality even earlier, in 2005, and now secures 94 percent of its electricity from hydro, wind, and landfills for the 750,000 residents.
And finally, Aspen had bumps in its road toward 100 percent renewables. City officials thought they had a green light from the local citizenry to recreate a hydroplant on Castle Creek that had served the city from 1885 to 1962. Some 70 percent of voters approved the bond issue in November 2007. then, things went south—and after a 2012 plebiscite, Aspen has a $2 million turbine sitting in cold storage.
Bad feelings remain.
Others want to join the club
The municipal utilities is where the action is happening in fast-paced carbon-reduction.
Georgetown, a city of 60,000 located on the edge of the Hill Country in Texas, wants to be 100 percent by 2017.
In the Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles, sunshine-soaked Lancaster intends to use a mechanism called community choice aggregation to partner with Southern California Edison in order to control procurement of power. California’s Marin County has already used this device, points out Diane Moss, who operates a website called go100percent.org. She further points out that San Francisco has formulated plans to be 100 percent renewable by 2022 and San Diego by 2030. In Hawaii, state legislators earlier this year adopted a 100 percent renewable portfolio standard for 2045.
Other communities, such as Fort Collins, Colo., vow to push even harder, adopting goals of complete carbon neutrality for buildings and transportation, as well as electricity. It sounds ridiculously naïve, like a World Peace bumper sticker in a war zone. Joseph Stagner, executive director of sustainability and energy management at Stanford University, argues that neither technology nor economics should prevent universities and other jurisdictions from achieving that goal, although politics might.
Stanford’s energy plan sees greater use of ground-source heat pumps, which can be used to both heat and cool buildings, but with an expanded role for electricity. “The solution is all-electric power by renewables,” says Stagner. “And it won’t take to 2050 to get there.”
Tony Seba, who lectures at Stanford, points to past market transformations, the car replacing horse-drawn wagons on New York’s Fifth Avenue between 1903 and 1913, cell phones rapidly muscling their way into common use late in the 20th century, just as smartphones have more recently. In a talk at the American Renewable Energy Day conference in August, Seba—the author of “Clean Disruption” and other books— made the case for a similar and imminent market disruption in energy generation.
At the same conference, Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron announced that having achieved 100 percent renewables, Aspen now wants to confront transportation, where the city’s greenhouse gas footprint has continued to grow during the last decade.
It’s a significant challenge for any community, even those whose customers don’t arrive in private jets.
But hand this to Aspen: they set out to achieve a goal—and they succeeded.
Hip, hip hooray!