Aspen officials turn up heat at fire hearth
ASPEN ” City officials have turned up the heat once again at downtown Aspen’s fire hearth, an environmentally unfriendly amenity, yet popular among visitors seeking warmth during the cold holiday nights.
The return of the hearth is surprising to some considering the Aspen City Council earlier this year vowed to no longer fire up the fossil-fuel burning pit, which emits 9 1/2 pounds of carbon a year into the atmosphere ” or 40 percent of what an average Aspen home puts out per year.
Environmentally conscious council members believed it was hypocritical to operate anything that goes against its mission of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2020.
“When I walked by it, I was surprised,” said City Councilman Jack Johnson, adding he recalled the council sending a directive months ago to the city’s environmental staff to find an alternative.
“It’s not been the highest priority and rightly so, but there ought to be some resolution,” Johnson said.
City Hall this past spring held a design competition, and asked firms to come up with their own creative alternatives. Ideas included an interactive display and feature that would feature a human-generated power element which generates heat. LED lights that display a flame or generate a light show also could be part of the feature. And it could run on electricity provided by Aspen’s yet-to-be built hydropower plant.
Proposals by artists were submitted, and a jury of local energy experts and city staffers were supposedly in August going to select a plan, which would ultimately be approved by the council.
But where the plans are in the process is unknown.
Jeff Woods, director of the city’s parks department, said he got permission to turn the hearth on during high season from City Manager Steve Barwick and Mayor Mick Ireland.
“I wasn’t sure how to handle it this year,” Woods said. “But we are running it in fairly short time periods.”
Woods added he’s noticed that the hearth has had a steady flow of people hovering around it all week.
“It’s a public amenity that is a great place for people to gather,” he said. “The amount of energy it uses is minuscule.
“But if we aren’t going to use it, we should get rid of it.”
Johnson said he’s never received an explanation as to why his suggestion of burning good-old fashioned firewood isn’t a plausible alternative.
“It’s not a fossil fuel and it’s renewable,” he said.
The hearth has been a sticking point in the debate over whether the city is serious about its intentions to reduce the town’s contribution to climate change and serve as an example that other communities might follow. The hearth, fueled by natural gas, was built to enhance the downtown pedestrian experience, fulfilling one city goal at the expense of another.
Whatever replaces the hearth will have an educational component, explaining why the city government has turned off the natural gas and pointing out the wasteful energy consumption throughout town, as well as suggesting ways to be more environmentally conscious.
But until then, the natural gas and the debate rages on.
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