Hydro’s historic roots on display in gondola plaza

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

One of the talking points raised by the opposition in the battle over the city of Aspen’s hydroelectric proposal is that the project would use outdated, 19th century technology.
Supporters of the hydro plant are running head on into that issue, arguing that hydropower’s long history, particularly in the West, demonstrates its reliability. To emphasize the point, the pro-hydro Backyard Energy Committee, in a partnership with the Aspen Skiing Co., has installed in the gondola plaza a 19th century pelton wheel — a critical component to generating hydropower — that was in use to light up hard rock mines in Ouray until about the 1920s. (Previous reports from the committee that the wheel was from Aspen’s original Castle Creek hydropower facility were incorrect.)
The installation will remain on display through the Nov. 6 election, when Aspen voters will consider Referendum 2C, an advisory question that asks whether the municipal government should continue pursuing the controversial hydro project, which officials claim will generate 8 percent of the city utility’s electricity load.
SkiCo, which owns gondola plaza, has signed on in support of Referendum 2C and the hydro plant, and is allowing the group to use the highly visible public space. No company representatives were on-hand, however, at a Tuesday morning event unveiling the pelton wheel.

 Curtis Wackerle
Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Daily News
Sam Perry demonstrates how a pelton wheel works Tuesday morning in gondola plaza. The pelton wheel, which is a component of a hydroelectric system, is from 19th century mines in Ouray and is a prop for the Backyard Energy Committee’s campaign in favor of the city’s hydro proposal.

Sam Perry, great grandson of DRC Brown, an original Aspen settler who helped found the first Castle Creek hydropower facility, brought the pelton wheel up to Aspen from his family’s ranch near Creede, where it was in storage with other salvaged historic items. Perry also is related to Ruthie Brown, an Aspen resident who is a co-chair of Backyard Energy Committee.
“The technology has been working for 130 years,” Perry said. “In fact, it’s changed very little.”
This point has been raised against the hydro plant by opponents, who think the city should invest more in modern renewable energy technologies, such as solar and wind. Hydro has environmental consequences for the rivers and streams it taps, opponents argue.
Mayor Mick Ireland conceded that there could be some political risk in highlighting the industrial revolution-era roots of hydropower, but politics isn’t the point, he said.
“Realistically, this is a proven technology,” he said. “The problem with some of the new renewable technology is that it’s unreliable, it’s unproven. This stuff lasts for 100 years.”
As will be explained in an interpretive plaque that will be placed next to the installation, the pelton wheel harnesses the energy of falling water, which comes in under pressure through a pipe to spin the wheel. The wheel then rotates a belt, which spins the motor of a generator, thus producing electricity.