Sitting in storage on city of Aspen property is a $1.46 million custom-built hydroelectric turbine and generator that was intended for a project that voters said “no” to in a city election.
What to do with the turbine now that the project narrowly lost an advisory vote in November is one of the many issues for City Council to consider when it holds its first hydro campaign postmortem in late January.
The city is likely to take a substantial hit if it decides to enter the resale market with the turbine.
“Turbines and generators are specifically engineered and constructed for each project, which is a limiting factor in reuse and value to another site,” David Hornbacher, city utilities director, wrote in an email.
Although voters approved $5.5 million in bonds for the project in 2007, the city’s hydro plant became controversial in the past two years as the estimated budget ballooned to $10.5 million. Wealthy property owners along Castle and Maroon creeks have sued Aspen over its water rights for hydroelectricity, and a campaign proclaiming “It’s not green to kill a stream” won over a majority of local voters — about 51.4 percent — this fall.
The city has spent about $7 million on the project to date, which includes the turbine and a pipe that was installed to feed it, as well as provide an emergency drain for a municipal water storage pond.
The plant was designed to generate around 5 million kilowatt hours a year, offsetting electricity purchased from Nebraska coal plants and providing 8 percent of the Aspen municipal utility’s power needs. It would have increased the amount of water the city currently diverts from Castle and Maroon creeks to feed the generator, but diversions would have been limited during the low-flow months of the fall and winter.
In 2008, the city awarded a $1.3 million contract to Canyon Hydro of Deming, Wash., to build the turbine and generator. Canyon was one of five firms to submit nine proposals for the project, with bids ranging from $860,000 to $2.4 million.
In the course of the roughly two years during which the project was being built in Deming, located in northwest Washington near Mount Baker, change orders and additional components increased the project’s budget by $153,000.
Reasons for the increase included a spike in the cost of raw materials, and a reworked concept for supporting and housing the turbine in the powerhouse, which was planned to be in a new building underneath the Castle Creek Bridge.
A series of emails between city water department officials and staff at Canyon Hydro reflect a friendly relationship.
“We’ll get this turbine done soon to help you keep warm there in Aspen,” says an October 2009 email from Brett Bauer at Canyon to city utilities operations manager Lee Ledesma.
Once completed, Canyon stored the turbine at its facility for three months, at a cost of $1,000 a month, before shipping it to Aspen in November 2011. That move cost $16,000.
Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick declined to provide the specific location of the turbine for security reasons, but he said it is on city property and not incurring additional storage charges.
The 1.17-megawatt turbine was designed to make power from water that would fall about 300 vertical feet through a 42-inch pipeline from the city’s Thomas Reservoir, a water storage pond near the municipal water treatment plant. The water would then be discharged back into Castle Creek.
Kurt Johnson of Telluride Energy, a consulting firm that works with developers of small hydro projects such as the city of Aspen’s, likened selling the turbine to selling a used car — even if it is effectively brand new, the value diminishes significantly by driving it off the lot. He also said that the amount of specificity that goes into a hydroelectric system would limit the market for buyers; however, the city might find one with an advertising campaign and outreach through hydro industry trade organizations, he said.
Selling the turbine would require the city to take a huge financial hit, concluded Johnson, who in 2011 prepared a report on behalf of Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board analyzing Aspen’s hydro project. Johnson at the time called for additional examination on some aspects of the project, but overall found that the city had proceeded with “appropriate due diligence,” according to his January 2011 report.
Being that November’s vote was advisory and not legally binding, Aspen is under no obligation to sell the turbine or stop the project. Some feel the election was tainted by an anonymously funded campaign against the project reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars. The community still does not know who created and funded a group calling itself the Aspen Citizens Committee, which sent out at least four glossy mailers in the lead-up to the vote that included dubious insinuations that the project would lead to massive fish kills and dry up 7 miles of creek bed.
Prior to the vote, Councilman Steve Skadron questioned whether a loss at the polls should translate into actually halting the project. Councilman Adam Frisch said before the election that he would vote “no” out of frustration with the city’s public process in pursuing the project, although he thought it was environmentally and fiscally sound.
On Jan. 22, council and city utilities staff will meet to discuss options for developing renewable energy in light of hydro’s loss at the polls.