The Aspen City Council approved up to $8,000 in funding Monday, so that the city can maintain a federal permit which will allow hydropower to remain an energy option for Castle and Maroon creeks.
Between $5,000 and $8,000 will be spent on legal counsel so that the city can provide a six-month update to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will keep the permit alive.
On Monday, Aspen’s utilities projects coordinator Will Dolan said that if the city fails to provide the regulatory commission update by March 1, the permit expires, leaving the city open to competition for the water. Hydro opponents who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting described this as a scare tactic with the intention of moving forward with the controversial hydro project, which was shot down by Aspen voters during a November 2012 advisory vote.
On Monday, the council also approved $30,000 for the third and final stage of a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study, which is a comprehensive look at renewable-energy options for Aspen, as it aims for 100 percent renewable energy by 2015.
Meanwhile, the impacts of the proposed hydro plant on Castle and Maroon creeks will be further studied in the coming months. This is the result of an agreement between Aspen and Saving Our Streams, a group that attempted to sue the city in state water court in 2011, claiming the city abandoned its water rights. The two sides agreed to set aside a court trial in favor of a mutually agreed-upon consultant who will perform the study.
On Monday, council members Art Daily, Dwayne Romero, Ann Mullins and Mayor Steve Skadron approved maintaining the federal permit, while councilman Adam Frisch said he doesn’t buy into the fact that letting the deadline pass would open the city up to competition.
Skadron said that funding the regulatory commission update does not move the hydro project forward. Rather, it leaves the city open to hydro as a renewable-energy option.
“Not funding the progress report is an attempt foreclose this discussion and is tantamount to killing the project for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Tonight should not be the decision point.”
Daily agreed with Skadron, calling the permit a placeholder for hydro. He said it’s not the council’s place to make a yes or no decision on hydro until all facts have been presented by NREL. When the second stage of the NREL study is completed in April, the council is expected to narrow its renewable-energy choices to three.
During the meeting, Frisch cited a letter from Matt Rice, of American Rivers, who is of the opinion that the city will not be affected if the permit expires. Similarly, attorney Paul Noto, representing Saving Our Streams, said there’s a difference between a preliminary permit and a license application. All the permit does is hold the city’s place in line so that another entity can’t step in, Noto said, adding that it has no effect on a license permit.
“That’s an important distinction, because in the end, we’re not foreclosing options by not doing anything,” Noto said.
Resident Tom Hirsch said Dolan’s recommendation to fund the permit update had an “ominous overlay,” with the purpose of injecting fear. He said the fear tactics date back to 2010, when the city authorized $2.3 million on construction of a pipeline from Thomas Reservoir to the site of the proposed plant turbine. Opponents claimed the city was putting its cart before the horse, since it did not have federal approval for the hydro plant. However, the city said the pipe also serves as an emergency drain line for the reservoir.
“I assure you that I have no nefarious or ulterior motives,” Dolan said.
Like Dolan, Aspen’s Director of Utilities and Environmental Initiatives David Hornbacher said that by keeping the permit alive, the city is preserving the council’s right to exercise all renewable-energy options. Mullins said the council has no secret agenda to pursue or not pursue hydro.
“It’s our intent to determine what the best solution is to this problem,” she said. “From what I’ve read from city staff and after hearing from the public, I’m convinced that funding this report is just status quo. It’s not pushing the project ahead at all but maintaining it as a possible option.”