"Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn"
- Woody Guthrie, 1941
This ballad to hydropower romanticized a bountiful, environmentally friendly future through clean, cheap energy. For more than 70 years the Columbia River's hydro dams have delivered irrigation for crops, and power for the industries of Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Driven by a seemingly endless supply of perpetual "green" power, the region experienced a decades-long era of development with no apparent downside. Hydropower was the silver bullet to clean, sustainable energy.
By 1990, a half century into hydropower's large-scale use, an overwhelming body of science and growing public pressure finally disclosed its true environmental and social costs. Salmon runs decimated; entire ecosystems altered; the livelihoods of indigenous peoples torn apart.
In the November 2003 issue of the Universities Council on Water Resources journal, the University of South Carolina's William L. Graf published "Water Resources Update" and summed it up this way: "By the end of the twentieth century, it became obvious that the benefits generated by dams were associated with environmental costs that planners had not foreseen."
In other words, hydroelectric power is not "100 percent clean."
Not the "white coal" it was considered in earlier times, science now demonstrates the severe environmental impacts of hydroelectric projects, both "run of river" diversions and massive storage-based dam facilities.
Environmental damage begets financial crisis.
By the early 1990s the Bonneville Power Administration, operator of most Columbia River hydroelectric dams, faced unanticipated environmental mandates, which it obtusely called "stranded costs." Unalterable wholesale power contracts and politics limited its ability to raise money, and bankruptcy loomed.
Congress did what it does best, "unstranding" BPA with billions in "salmon recovery credits," arbitrary estimates of BPA's cost to mitigate for its environmental damage. Yes, a bailout. In 2009 those fictitious credits financed 80 percent of BPA's annual treasury loan payment. After having 70 years to fulfill a promise of self sufficiency, BPA remains a debtor to taxpayers, who subsidize its energy rates and offset its environmental damage.
Welcome to the true cost of hydropower. Economies of scale necessary for hydroelectric plants to cover all of their true costs of power generation, environmental damage, and cultural displacement, are on par with other forms of power generation.
Again, William Graf: "Many run-of-river dams were built for mills or small hydroelectric projects that are no longer economically viable. ... Because the original economic incentive for the structures is now absent, the ecosystem values of dam removal and river restoration are great enough to justify public investment. Over the past decade, more than 500 dams have been removed from critical locations ..."
With this background, let us turn our attention to a much smaller, yet in many ways similar hydroelectric conundrum, Aspen's troubled Castle Creek project.
With energy producers tearing out small hydro projects to restore ecosystems, is Aspen truly "leading" by building such a facility?
Similar to BPA, Aspen's current electric rates will never cover all of Castle Creek's debt service, operations, maintenance and environmental mitigation costs.
And what of those environmental costs? Opinions vary.
Local environmental heavyweights Connie Harvey and Ken Neubecker, and local government watchdog Elizabeth Milias, have opined stridently on the city's deficient ecological due diligence, and its legal, economic, and public process shortcomings, including the use of potentially surrendered water rights and its efforts to sidestep thorough regulatory review. Many others have also voiced opposition.
Meanwhile, supporters use language normally reserved for oil and gas industry lobbyists, dismissing calls for comprehensive environmental evaluation as a waste of tax dollars, implying "nimbyism" on the part of impacted residents, and flatly claiming no scientific basis for concern about ecosystem damage.
Power generation, like all development, comes in various sizes and qualities. Well planned projects cover their costs, limit environmental damage, and demonstrate clear economic value. Castle Creek doesn't pencil, its environmental impact has not been thoroughly vetted, and therefore the true costs offsetting the value of its non-C02 emitting energy remain unclear. The only certainty is that its ecological damage will be limited by its relatively small 1.2 megawatt size.
In the end, the Castle Creek project, for which much of the voter approved funds have already been spent, is likely a $5-6 million mistake.
It took more than 50 years of study for hydropower's true environmental costs to become widely known. Aspen should heed the results of this hard-won historic and scientific lesson.
Perhaps someday Dan Sheridan will extol the benefits of Castle Creek in a Woody Guthrie-esque ballad, but I doubt it. Scrapping this project is the only way to limit financial and environmental damage. It may be a hard pill for some to swallow, but it's never the wrong time to do the right thing.