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ISSUE #106: HydrANT - CCEC ALL Dried Up!

"We might need to sell our 'hydro mission accomplished' banner along with our turbine."   -- Adam Frisch, Aspen City Councilman, 4/21/14


The last issue (#105) of The Red Ant left off with an impending presentation by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) to city council with the four most viable renewable energy alternatives for Aspen. Given the priorities determined by council last fall in its quest to meet the city's goal of 100% renewable energy for its municipal portfolio (serving customers in the downtown core and West End) by the end of 2015, and in order to bridge the gap of 17K-24K MegaWatt hours/year (MWh/yr) of renewable energy production needed to meet this goal, NREL was charged with presenting detailed outlines of each opportunity, energy output estimates, lifecycle cost estimates, among other analyses.


The evening's goal was to choose two options to pursue further with detailed "make this happen" plans from which one or possibly both will be implemented to meet the goal. It was no surprise that the beleaguered Hydro Plant (CCEC) made the initial top 4, given that the city already has $6.9 million sunk into the mess. (That's the city's number. My guess is the real expenditures on outside legal council, expenditures buried in the water department budget and staff time makes that number A LOT higher.) But whoa! An unanticipated surprise! By the end of the unbiased and professionally moderated meeting, 4 of 5 council members saw two renewable energy options that they clearly favored far more than the completion of the CCEC. Here's how it all played out:



As posted in Issue #105, a diverse group of local citizens signed on to a letter in continued opposition to the CCEC hydro plant. As expected, this created great controversy, especially since it highlighted several CCEC-damning remarks by Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins. Mayor Skadron made his displeasure at this mailer well known, telling anyone who would listen that the mailer was just "propaganda" with shadowy financing. Conspiracy theorists railed to the local papers that the "Koch Brothers" and other outside anonymous interests had funded the effort. That was, until American Rivers ( proudly stepped forward and claimed financial responsibility for the mailer's costs, supplemented by individual contributions from local hydro plant opponents. I recently deposited my $50 food tax refund check from the city and promptly mailed in a check to support the cause. So much for shadowy financing. And since when is an unsolicited report from world-renowned scientist Amory Lovins propaganda?!



Last fall, in step 1 (of 3, part of the contract for analysis of the city's alternatives by NREL), council methodically studied and then voted on their official "decision criteria" for selecting Aspen's future renewable energy sources. These criteria are telling in and of themselves.


Highest priority renewable energy sources would:

  • Have community involvement and awareness. (That's nice and all, but if the renewable energy goal isn't something the community voted on or has any say in, what's the point?)    
  • Be owned and/or controlled by the city of Aspen.  (Really?  As a national politician famously said, "What difference does it make?"  Clearly this is a sentiment left over from the prior Mick-led council where renewable energy opportunities such as down valley community solar arrays were eliminated from consideration after a diatribe from the former mayor who could not fathom supporting a privately held renewable energy source.  His belief is that nobody should profit from renewable energy production or distribution, and that the government does these things best.)       
  • Provide the lowest MWh/yr lifecycle cost.  (Who can complain when these guys exercise a modicum of fiscal restraint?  Not The Red Ant!)      

Secondary priorities included:

  • Long term (20 - 50 years) rate stability.  (Sounds reasonable, to the degree that market forces can be predicted.  However, in the rapidly evolving renewable energy sector, the emergence of new and more reliable/affordable/accessible energy sources makes a 5 year projection nothing short of a pipe dream, never mind 20 - 50 years!)    
  • The "visibility" of Aspen's renewable energy leadership.  (Isn't THIS something?!  Staff often touts how Aspen needs to be the example to the world to justify comically high costs for its "green" efforts, and clearly council has drunk the Kool-Aid!  Aspen should do what's appropriate and best for Aspen.  And economically feasible for its taxpayers.  Period.  To worry about what "other people" think is exactly what your mother told you not to do, remember?)      

The tertiary priorities (clearly not very important to council) were:

  • Ability to provide backup power at critical Aspen facilities.  (See "Markalunas" below.)  
  • Proximity to Aspen.  (This should never EVER have been a consideration.  Another reason for not considering a deal for solar energy through Carbondale-based Clean Energy Collective in 2011 was because Mick determined that this source of renewable energy was "not local enough" and he didn't want "energy-hogging homeowners" to outsource their solar mitigation.  Good to see that this council has evolved beyond that utter foolishness!)       

NOT a priority (these decision criteria did not garner ONE SINGLE VOTE among council):

  • CO2 emission reduction.  (Yep, the stated goal of Aspen's Canary Initiative is NOT a council priority!)     
  • Initiate/catalyze "new" renewable energy projects.  (Aspen's role in the renewable energy universe is NOT focused on developing new sources of energy, just converting our municipal portfolio to renewable sources.  Big difference.)   
  • Meet the 2015 renewable energy goal timeline.  (Again no council respect for the Canary Initiative!)       
  • "New" energy generation.  (Clearly, council has prioritized purchasing renewable energy from existing sources over investing to develop our own "new" sources.  Thank goodness!)     



In no particular order, NREL presented detailed the pros/cons for what it sees at the four most viable renewable energy sources to be evaluated for their potential to meet Aspen's lofty yet laudable goals. These included:


Large-Scale Solar: This appealing option that Aspen would own and control, and could brag about across the airwaves, was hamstrung by costs associated with in-town land (8 dedicated acres) and a frighteningly low MWh/yr output limit (a result of the city's existing contract with MEAN - our energy supplier -- that caps our ability to generate energy from solar at 1500 MWh/yr, far short of what we need) kept this out of the finals. The estimated MWh cost was $130.


CCEC Hydro: Our nightmare project of the moment would give the city the ownership and control it craves, but the financials appear to be questionable, especially given the impacts of uncertain future spring run-offs on rate stability. (NREL repeatedly stated that the numbers they were working from are city-generated at $63 MWh. Had they agreed with these, surely they would not have issued more than just a few disclaimers, including the city's sketchy assumption of a final $10.5 million cost!) Besides, the CCEC hydro would only produce 5500 MWh/yr, therefore it too would not meet our 17K-24K MWh/yr need! This low output notably seemed to come as a great surprise to council members. Never mind The Red Ant has been writing about this since June 2010!! Furthermore, the current and potential lawsuits associated with the CCEC all but guarantee that this project would not be completed for many, many years, if at all.


New Wind Contracts: The city currently purchases over 20K MWh/yr of wind power through its MEAN contract. Increasing these purchases by quantities of 5K-20K MWh/yr through the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), which is incidentally looking for buyers, or alternatively through Excel Energy in conjunction with MEAN, would immediately address Aspen's MWh/yr gap at an estimate of $90 per MWh. This option was very popular with council, making everyone's short list and advancing this option to the finals.


Des Moines Landfill Methane Gas: The most popular choice by far (all four council members liked it best) was the purchase of energy from "harnessed" methane gas from a capped landfill in Iowa. The facility is already operational and in business with MEAN. Aspen could access up to 18K MWh/yr immediately at an estimated cost of $96 per MWh. Recall that despite council's non-priority of reducing CO2, methane gas is far worse than CO2 in the "green" realm, so purchasing this source of renewable energy has valuable offset benefits! This option was the evening's winner, advancing to the finals as well.


Notable "other" Opportunities: NREL was certain to include other ideas that theoretically exist, but could not help Aspen meet its renewable energy goals by the 2015 deadline. These include projects still in the planning stage such as more wind power from WAPA, a hydro plant at Olmstead and additional hydro power from Ridgway (both hydro options are many years away). Additionally, NREL raised several "idea phase" concepts for the record, including gas fuel cell or micro-turbine using directed biogas, local coal mine methane waste recovery, new utility energy contracts, various local micro-hydro options, distributed biomass-anaerobic digestion, geothermal drilling, irrigation ditch hydro power and the conversion of local landfill gas to electricity.



Each member of council got to vote for two options. Additional wind and the landfill/methane gas were the resounding hands-down winners. Dwayne, Adam, Ann and Art each voted for these two options. CCEC died a swift and painless (but long overdue) death, but not before Mayor Skadron emotionally called the CCEC's death knell "an unfortunate step." He went on to lament, "I think our hydro project is a well-conceived one, I think it's sensitive to the environment, and I believe it to be a financially sustainable project." The poor guy clearly didn't do his homework nor any of the past four years' reading from various experts, and seemingly ignored the evening's presentation at hand. He probably owed that pathetic speech to Mick who helped him get elected. The look of shock upon the NREL analysts' faces was priceless. They couldn't believe their ears. In any case, it was sad to witness such a foolish diatribe when the result was a foregone conclusion. Unlike his predecessor, however, Skadron was very gracious in defeat.



The best part of the evening (aside from CCEC getting unequivocally axed) was when NREL explained to council that the Des Moines Landfill option could be implemented into Aspen's energy mix "tomorrow." Shocked, council asked for details on this opportunity for quick fulfillment. Turns out that MEAN and the Des Moines Landfill have had a contract out for Aspen's approval for months. Staff just hadn't bothered to mention it to council, lest they pivot away from throwing good money after bad at the CCEC hydro. Yep, MEAN has been waiting months for Aspen's answer on whether or not we want this power! For anyone who has ever doubted The Red Ant's insistence that city staff has been driving the CCEC hydro plant and only telling council what they felt was necessary to keep the project alive and funded, well here's your proof. The water weasels got caught.


Additionally, as the vote was moving along among council members in overwhelming support of the landfill and additional wind, city manager Steve Barwick and a representative from the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) both chimed in during the proceedings to plea desperately for the life of the CCEC. It was comical, if not pathetic. And, wholly inappropriate, as this was a work session between council and NREL with no provision for comment, public or otherwise. In an obvious fluster at the impending loss of his (and Mick's) legacy project, Barwick rattled off a list of Mick-era renewable energy priorities, begging council to look at the four options under consideration through the lens of "CO2 reduction, 'new' proprietary projects and 'new' renewable energy generation." He, and the CORE official, both shamefully stated, "Renewable energy is not good energy unless it's new." Unbelievable. And palpable in its desperation.



Has the love affair ended? Within days of the council vote that ended the CCEC, Mick turned on his protégé. Apparently the emotional pro-CCEC nonsense from Mayor Skadron as the votes were tallied was not enough to placate his mentor. In his whiny weekly column in the Aspen Daily News, our has-been former mayor ripped into Steve, accusing him of forging "bizarre relationships" and prioritizing being nice and attending social events over "standing up for the public interest." Mick is clearly unhinged at the realization that his pet project has just been euthanized. That he decided to dedicate his column to disparaging one of his last good soldiers was unexpected to say the least. And wholly inappropriate.


It comes as no surprise that Mick disagrees with the decision to kill the CCEC hydro plant - it was his baby, after all - and he has every right to bemoan its loss.  But to peddle outright lies (council's vote to pursue wind power and the landfill options was based upon the "urging of anti-government ideologues" AND "abandoning hydro means abandoning water rights") and excoriate the current mayor for actually supporting the idiotic CCEC in the face of growing opposition among the populace and clearly at the council table is yet one more reason to thank our lucky stars that Mick was term-limited out of office a year ago. It will be interesting to see how much longer Steve will remain a loyal soldier of the increasingly irrelevant Mick regime of days gone by.



A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away .... Or, more accurately, in 1961, former water department manager and steward of the old Castle Creek power plant Jim Markalunas scurried to the shuttered 1890's-era power house amidst an epic early-season blizzard and fired up the turbines. This heroic act provided an emergency source of power that effectively rescued Aspen from freezing in the dark.


Now a regular writer to the local papers, Markalunas has been a staunch supporter of building the new CCEC hydro plant and bringing hydro power back to Aspen, if even just for emergency power. His letters have painted an idyllic picture of a bygone era, and regularly romanticized the archaic 1930's technology once employed here and ironically (foolishly?) proposed anew for the modern day CCEC. He laments the day that the old plant was shut down, "I wish I could still enjoy the benefits of Castle Creek Hydro. We cannot undo the poor decisions made long ago to scrap the turbines of the historic power house, but we can restore clean renewable energy for Aspen." Ahhh, glory days. It's understandable. But after the recent council vote that shut down the CCEC for good, Markalunas' tone changed dramatically. His personal sadness over the old plant's demise and his hopes dashed for a new 21st century version morphed into pure vitriol. "I must express my deep disappointment in the lack of fortitude by our Aspen City Council... our city council seems unable to stay the course against the false winds of misinformation and selfish 'NIMBY' interests," he wrote.


Jim, you're a good man who has honorably served our community. This one was simply not to be. You fought the good fight. There are many viable and exciting renewable energy options on tap for Aspen that were not available in 1959 when the old hydro plant was decommissioned. As you learn more about these, my guess is that you'll like what you see. I don't always agree with city council and their decisions, but please, don't accuse them of "lack of fortitude."



No one is spiking the ball in the end zone, but the anti-CCEC folks are understandably pleased. When the facts became known and the ugly truth emerged, the "Yay, let's build a hydro plant because it's so green" giddy enthusiasm waned. Sadly, the misguided CCEC hydro plant has cost the taxpayers of Aspen well over $7 million. We may never know the full cost of this folly. But importantly, the decision to move on without the CCEC is significant beyond just the obvious financial and environmental aspects. City council took back its public policy responsibility, long ago hijacked by staff bureaucrats who pushed their own agendas. In a recent letter to city council that was published in the papers, Maurice Emmer summed it up perfectly:


"You know I do not hesitate to criticize. I am equally willing to commend. Your decisions Monday night have pointed the Canary Initiative in a much more practical and successful direction. This is good not only for the Canary Initiative, which now has a chance of meeting its renewable energy goal on time. It is also an improvement in the relationship between city council and city staff. For years staff has spoon fed city councils only what staff wants the council to read or hear, unreasonably controlling the direction of public policy. Hopefully this city council will correct the relationship between council and staff. Last night's results are promising." Amen.



NREL will be back in July for phase 3, with detailed next steps for the wind and landfill energy acquisitions. They are also expected to present and discuss ways Aspen can reduce its power demand through efficiency measures designed to lower local power consumption.


As for the CCEC, we're watching closely. This will not be an easy one for the bureaucrats to let go of. Time (and open records requests) will tell whether or not the city continues to throw money at the CCEC. There are a lot of idle hands in Aspen's water department these days. Hopefully they're looking at how to sell our $1.5 million custom turbine, commissioned merely hours after the original vote to raise $5.5 million for the CCEC hydro plant passed in 2007. The folks from NREL believe Aspen can sell the thing for 20 cents on the dollar.


At press time, there has been nothing made public about the status of the water rights lawsuit that the city faces. The plaintiffs claim that by tearing out the old hydro plant infrastructure in the late 1950's, the city abandoned its water rights for hydro power. Use it or lose it. (Contrary to popular worry, however, no other water rights are in question, just the water rights for hydro power.) Frankly, I hope that the lawsuit presses on. I believe that the city DID abandon its water rights for hydro power and I'd like the idea of a hydro plant on Castle Creek denied for eternity.



My dear friend, local environmentalist Connie Harvey and I thank you for your support of the anti-CCEC hydro plant efforts over the past 4 years.  It took a dedicated and diverse group of community members to fight this project, but none of it could have been accomplished without the interest and involvement of literally hundreds of citizens. Your varied contributions kept the drumbeat alive, and in the end, together we shut it down.  Cheers!


Stay in touch. We'll let you know what we're up to next!





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