Aspen hydropower plan triggers green v. green tussle

Hoover Dam it's not, but a proposed hydropower project in Aspen could provide 8 percent of the town's power.

Town files preliminary paperwork with FERC for Castle Creek project

By Bob Berwyn

ASPEN — Taking another significant step toward reducing the town’s carbon footprint, Aspen officials this week filed the required pre-application papers for the Castle Creek hydroelectric project with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The filing is the first step in a formal review process that eventually could enable the town to produce about 8 percent of its needed electricity from a clean and local source — but the project is not without controversy, as some critics claim that the power generated by the facility isn’t worth the potential harm it could cause to Castle and Maroon creeks by reducing stream flows.

“It threatens to flatline the rivers,” said Matt Rice, a conservation advocate with American Rivers. While his group supports hydroelectric projects done right, Rice said he doesn’t think the Castle Creek project is the best sustainable energy option for Aspen.

American Rivers recently presented an independent evaluation of the project to town residents and officials, with a report that outlines the high cost of the project relative to the power it will produce. Rice said the town could invest that money in other renewable energy options, getting more bang for the buck, without affected the relatively natural stream-flow regime in Castle and Maroon creeks.

In Colorado, where nearly every river and stream is subject to detention and diversion, those remaining streams that still flow naturally represent an irreplaceable resource, he said.

For the town, the Castle Creek project is a key component in providing renewable energy sources to the Aspen community. According to the town’s website, the energy center will not only provide power, but serve as a renewable energy model, education center and museum, reducing CO2 emissions by about 5,000 tons.

The turbine and generator convert the force of water falling from 325 feet, from the Thomas Reservoir, into electric power. The water will travel a 42 inch penstock (pipe) which will supply the plant with approximately 52 cubic feet per second of head and double as an emergency drain line for the Thomas Reservoir if the reservoir walls are breached.

The electricity will be placed on the City of Aspen electric grid to power the Water Treatment campus, and may potentially produce hydrogen for fuel cells and hydrogen vehicles.

For Auden Schendler, the symbolic role of the proposed facility is at least as important as the power it will produce.

“If we’re going to solve climate change, we have to have models, and Aspen can be a model,” said Schendler, environmental director for the Aspen Skiing Company. “We have the resources and the affluence.We need IMBY communities, not NIMBY communities,” he said.

“If you read the science and look at the policy, we’re not getting anywhere. We have a serious problem,” he said, referring to global warming.

Schendler said the showdown over the Castle Creek proposal also reflects a clash between “old-school” environmental groups that are focused on single issues without seeing the bigger picture.

The project represents one of the final stones in the town’s ambitious path toward generating all its municipal power supply from renewable resources.

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