Aspen seeks hydropower exemption
October 19, 2010
ASPEN – The city of Aspen took the next step toward its controversial Castle Creek hydropower project, announcing Monday that it has applied for permission for the project with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
The city is applying for a “conduit exemption,” which allows hydropower projects to go forward without a license if the applicant has an existing infrastructure with which to work. Aspen’s current infrastructure is a pipeline that goes from a water intake valve on Castle Creek to Thomas Reservoir, but there is no existing infrastructure from the reservoir to the project site.
A utilities department contractor is currently building a new pipeline from Thomas Reservoir to the proposed site of the hydropower plant under the Highway 82 bridge that spans Castle Creek.
City officials have said the pipeline is necessary outside of the hydropower project because Thomas Reservoir needs a drainage line.
But a number of project skeptics have said publicly that, by building the pipeline, the city has jumped ahead of its timeline.
“We know to the public this looked like putting the cart before the horse, building a pipeline before having FERC approval,” said Phil Overeynder, Aspen’s director of public works, in a press release. “However, even if FERC doesn’t approve the hydro project, we need this pipeline for safety purposes alone …”
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Overeynder said in August that the pipeline is strictly being considered a part of the hydropower plant.
The city has spent about $1.5 million so far on constructing the line and buying turbines for the power plant. The cost of the pipeline construction is projected at $2.3 million; the entire project, if approved, would cost $6.2 million.
Its implementation hinges entirely on a decision to be made by the City Council on Nov. 8. If it is not approved, the money already spent would have to come from the city utility budget.
Current expenditures on the project are being taken from a bond fund of about $5.5 million. That money would either have to be paid back or reallocated to a similar energy project if the City Council votes no.
The project, which is currently subject to a private review and mediation process overseen by a number of Roaring Fork River Valley citizens, plans to draw 25 cubic feet per second from Castle Creek and 27 cfs from Maroon Creek. It would eventually save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in energy costs, the city says.
City officials say that, if the project is approved by the City Council, Aspen would have to purchase far less coal-fire power from the Nebraska power authority with which it contracts.
The mediation efforts, which are being primarily directly by the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, will focus on how to build and operate the plant while still maintaining the health of the streams.
During a council meeting last month, City Manager Steve Barwick said the project would still be financially viable if less water was drawn from the creeks. The original plan would have reduced Castle Creek to about 14 cfs for as long as six months. But Barwick said if the city never drew the stream below 19 cfs, it would still save cash on energy purchased from the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska.
The city based the 14 cfs figure on an environmental impact study of Castle Creek that said the stream would be significantly harmed if it dropped below 13.3 cfs.
Mediators have invited Mayor Mick Ireland and Overeynder to participate as proponents of the initiative.
Ireland said at the beginning of the mediation that the city would support the effort, but would not participate.
This clarification was published Oct. 22:
An article in Tuesday’s edition of The Aspen Times quoted public works director Phil Overeynder as saying a current pipeline project is strictly a part of the proposed Castle Creek hydropower plant. It could also serve as a drain line from Thomas Reservoir.