City looking for local input on renewable energy plans

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

After its plans for a new hydropower plant were rejected last year by voters, city of Aspen officials are hoping the community can provide some input on what to do now.

On Wednesday, Jan. 16, the city of Aspen is hosting a public open house called “Share Your Ideas to Get Aspen Electric to 100 Percent Renewable.” The discussion will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Rio Grande meeting room located above Taster’s Pizza.

“We’re really trying to engage the community in the conversation of how to meet our renewable energy goals,” said Will Dolan, a project coordinator in the city’s utilities department.

According to the Canary Initiative Action Plan, the city’s official strategy to combat climate change and stakeout a leadership position on environmental issues, the municipal electric utility should run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2015.

The utility, which has about 3,000 customers and delivers around 70 million kilowatt hours of power annually, currently generates about 75 percent of its power from renewable sources. These include the Ruedi Reservoir and Maroon Creek hydropower facilities, wind farms in Wyoming and Nebraska, and additional hydropower purchased from the federal government. The city also is set to participate in a hydropower project in Ridgeway, in southwest Colorado, that will bring its renewable power rate to 89 percent.

The Castle Creek Energy Center, which has been in planning stages at least since 2006, would generate about 8 percent of the municipal utility’s power load. Combined with the other sources, that would put Aspen at 97 percent renewable energy. In November, however, the electorate voted down an advisory ballot question that asked if Aspen should complete the project. Due to concerns about diverting more water from the streams and the project’s up-front costs, the hydro plant had become controversial.

The city is plotting its way forward in light of the vote, and council will hold a work session on Jan. 22 focused on “exploring the options, costs, opportunities and constraints of different renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic, wind, hydroelectric, biomass, etc., as well as energy conservation and efficiency,” according to a city notice about the meeting and the open house the week prior.

“We invite you to be a contributing and constructive part of this conversation, before the work session, on how we can succeed in achieving the 100 percent renewable energy goal,” says the notice, which was sent to an email list of people signed up to receive information from City Hall. “Your involvement and ideas are essential.”

Without the Castle Creek hydro plant, the city needs to come up with about 8 million kilowatt hours of power to reach 100 percent renewable energy.

Dolan said the Jan. 16 open house will be set up with six or seven booths around the Rio Grande room, each one dedicated to a different renewable energy method. People can come at their leisure, learn about various renewable energy strategies and share their ideas with city staff, he said.

“We are open to any and all suggestions and proposals,” Dolan said. “But we favor them to be completely baked.”

Dolan explained that meant the city was looking for input beyond “you should do more solar,” and is hoping for specific suggestions.

The city laid out some guidelines for potential renewable energy pitches in the email blast. These are:

• Provide around 8 million kilowatt hours a year of reliable, clean renewable electricity.

• Offer long-term benefits such as cost savings and/or stabilization over status quo (current wholesale energy cost is $0.062/kilowatt hour, including wheeling charges).

• Completion time frame of 2015.

• Directly offsets reliance on coal-fired generation.

• Preferably local and base-load power.

• Limited transmission requirements.

• Offer potential for partnership or ownership interest.

• Not based on renewable energy certificates (RECs) or other forms of carbon offset credits.

In another email about the city’s search for options to get to 100 percent renewable energy, which was sent to people who had signed up to receive information about the Castle Creek hydro project, Dolan listed some of the points that made the hydro proposal attractive to the city. The points are a “useful benchmark for comparison” when considering other renewable options, he wrote. They are:

• About 5.5 million kilowatt hours a year of average production.

• Cost of completion of about $3.1 million.

• Local and direct tie to the distribution grid.

• No electric transmission services or cost required.

• 75-year life span.

• Use of existing city infrastructure.