Aspen taps reservoir for 20 years of clean energy |

Aspen taps reservoir for 20 years of clean energy

Scott Condon
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

Two out of five Aspenites can thank former President Jimmy Carter for clean energy when they flip on their light switch this morning, turn on a fan this afternoon or use their blender to mix margaritas.Legislation Carter championed during his troubled term in office led to the creation of the hydroelectric plant at the base of the Ruedi Reservoir dam. Carter provided incentives to harness wind, water and solar power the last time that fossil fuel prices soared to record levels and had consumers shaking their heads. Aspen and Pitkin County jumped at the opportunity and teamed to acquire the rights to develop a small hydroelectric plant on the Fryingpan River.

This year marks the 20th year of production for that plant. Its turbines have quietly whirled away for two decades, producing about 250,000 kilowatt-hours of power annually for the city of Aspen. That fills about two-fifths of the city’s annual demand, according to Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, the hydroelectric plant operator.The Ruedi Water and Power Authority, along with the nonprofit Roaring Fork Conservancy, provided a rare glimpse lucky locals into the plant one recent evening. The tour was part of the Conservancy’s mission to educate people about issues in the Roaring Fork River watershed.

Fuller, who helped build the plant and launch its operations as a Pitkin County staffer in the mid-1980s, said there was a bit of luck in the creation of the facility.A private entity applied for the rights to develop a different type of energy production facility called a “peaking plant.” Under that scheme, large amounts of water would have been released from the Ruedi dam at periodic intervals and recaptured at another dam and associated hydroelectric plant two miles downstream, according to Fuller.Local governments and many residents opposed construction of a second dam on the Fryingpan River, so the city of Aspen and Pitkin County capitalized on a provision in Carter’s legislation that gave them a priority to develop a hydroelectric plant.

They hired General Electric as their contractor and built a $4.5 million plant tucked into the base of Ruedi dam. Construction was under way in 1984-85, and the plant started producing electricity in 1986. It generates about $400,000 worth of power annually and sale of that energy helps pay off the construction bonds. Transmission lines feed the power into Aspen’s municipal system, Fuller said.The Ruedi hydroelectric plant uses a “run of the river” system. An intake pipe at the dam uses gravity to shoot up to 300 cubic feet per second of water down to the plant. The water is split into two pipes of about 3 feet in diameter that enter the plant from different sides and hit the turbine in an offset way, one high and one low, to spin it more effectively.

A large generator attached to the turbine converts the water power into electrical energy.On the evening of the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s tour, clouds and a chilly, stiff wind plummeted temperatures into the 50s. Inside the hydro plant, the noisy equipment warmed the air into the 80s and provided welcome relief for about 25 people.No one staffs the plant. It is wired to alert a maintenance crew in Glenwood Springs when there is a problem with operations.

Fuller said the hydroelectric plant works efficiently when the dam releases between 70 and 300 cfs of water. In the wintertime, the level often slips below that 70 cfs threshold and no power is produced. Flows in late spring and parts of the summer often exceed 300 cfs, so additional water is released directly through the dam.Tim O’Keefe, education director with the Roaring Fork Conservancy, often takes classes from local schools to show off the plant and promote alternative energy.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is


See more