Aspen Times Weekly cover story: What is powering Aspen? |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: What is powering Aspen?

Paul Andersen
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Cover photo by ThinkstockCover design by Afton Groepper

: This is Part I of a two-part series tracing energy links, from producers to consumers. Part I shares two key lessons author Paul Andersen learned about where local energy is created. In Part II, next week, the author investigates how green energy plays into our

local and national energy picture.

ASPEN – Aspen’s hotly debated hydropower proposal carries far larger implications than the future health of a mountain stream. It reaches beyond Castle Creek and far beyond the Aspen city limits. Larger forces are at work in the city’s drive for renewable energy because Aspen is, in effect, driving an energy policy that comes not from Washington, but from the grassroots of America.

As Congressional stalemates make national energy policy less and less relevant in the minds of regional energy managers seeking alternatives to carbon-based energy, local initiatives are moving America toward a cleaner, more sustainable energy future. The Aspen hydro project is one small step – albeit a politically charged one – in that move away from oil.

Like most controversial energy issues today, the Castle Creek hydro project is localized. This tempest in a teapot reflects more than a divisive and contentious sovereignty battle over local streamflows. What has divided the environmental community in a clash between riparian habitat and atmospheric carbon reflects a larger collision of consumer demands and alternative energy choices, of local sensibilities and global trends.

Some argue that it’s appropriate and responsible for a community to produce a share of the energy it consumes, even if that energy comes at a local cost. Only then might energy use become an issue that is both tangible and personal to consumers, fomenting an awareness that’s necessary for an informed energy dialogue. Aspen’s hydropower proposal may never generate a kilowatt, but it is charging the public with the awareness that energy can be a local issue – and is not free.

In 1885, the City of Aspen became the first city west of the Mississippi River to light homes, streets and businesses with clean, renewable hydropower at a generating plant in the building that is today the Aspen Art Museum. In 1893, the city innovated a new, expanded plant beneath the Castle Creek bridge where the city shops are today. That plant tapped three local streams – Castle Creek, Maroon Creek and Hunter Creek – to generate electricity by gravity flow. This allowed Aspen to produce clean, renewable hydropower for its own needs and export energy to downvalley communities.

In 1958, during a financial downturn and due to rising infrastructure costs, the Aspen City Council voted to dismantle and scrap this state-of-the-art hydro plant. Instead, they attached the city to the emergent national power grid. By going on the grid, Aspen, like many small utilities, joined the rush to centralized systems born of the mass consumer mentality of post-World War II industrial expansion. By doing so, Aspen made a fundamental and important policy change – it began importing most of its energy.

Today, the Aspen City Electric Utility serves about 2,800 residential, commercial, hotel and condominium customers with one of the highest percentages of hydropower and one of the lowest percentages of coal of any utility in the state. Aspen draws current from a hydropowered turbine at Ruedi Dam, which it owns, and from two micro hydro plants, one on Maroon Creek near T-Lazy-7 Ranch and another on the Fryingpan River. With a popular mandate to go green, Aspen’s energy mix is 36.8 percent hydro, 28.5 percent wind, 26 percent coal, 6.3 percent nuclear and 2.3 percent natural gas.

To get an idea of how Aspen’s energy profile relates to other places, it is necessary to widen the energy picture. This story cannot be told without revealing the elemental, yet complex, electricity grid that serves us.

Turn on a light bulb and you’ve triggered an energy path that’s nearly as complex as the nervous system in your body. The electrons flowing into that bulb arrive through a network of wires that make up a labyrinthine grid fed by a diversity of energy sources.

Picture a river system with tributaries feeding into a main stem from which water is piped into your home. So goes the flow of electricity: from tributary sources to mainstream distribution centers to individual consumers – it all leads to the light bulb in your home.

The electrons that turn on your light bulb originate from distant places. Look into your serving utility and discover five supporting providers. Look into those providers and discover yet another magnitude of connections and feeders. These obscure grid connections are boggling in scale, and therefore mostly invisible to the average consumer. While the intricacies of the grid are a challenge to those who attempt to figure it out, they are advantageous in safeguarding the steady flow of electricity through multisourced energy producers. Security for the energy grid lies in the very complexity and redundancy that obscures its understanding.

The intricate energy connections that touch us all are essential to our standard of living and formative of an environmental legacy that will last for generations. Given the global threats of carbon emissions and climate change, energy has become a universal issue that prods us to learn the secrets of the electric grid.

This look at the power grid reveals that our region’s electricity comes from coal strip mines in Wyoming, coal-fired power plants in Nebraska, natural gas wells in Garfield County, gas-fired power plants on the Front Range, wind farms across the Great Plains, hydropower dams on local lakes and streams, and local photovoltaic solar arrays.

While most of our attention on local energy today is focused on the controversy surrounding Aspen’s hydropower expansion, there are myriad other energy measures on the table, both public and utility driven. Coal, the cheapest, most common and most polluting of all energy sources, is still king in our diverse energy picture, but alternative upstarts are challenging the energy throne.

Most electricity consumers in the Roaring Fork and neighboring valleys are customers of Holy Cross Energy, a large rural electric cooperative that’s been running wires and providing electrons since it was founded in 1939. When it first got started, Holy Cross served the humble needs of rural communities, most of which have since grown dramatically with the recreation industry. Holy Cross has grown with them.

In 1962, Holy Cross served about 2,300 consumers. That year, a boom in energy demand occurred with the development of Vail, followed by Snowmass Village in 1967, and then by expansions at other ski resorts and their communities. By 1971, Holy Cross had almost quadrupled in size, serving roughly 8,700 consumers. It has grown by leaps and bounds since then, selling upwards of $70 million in energy per year.

Today, the Holy Cross service territory stretches from East Vail west to the Mesa County line and from the I-70 corridor south to Aspen and Marble. Holy Cross provides power to all the towns, cities, ski areas, golf courses, hotels, condominiums, schools, hospitals and residential neighborhoods within its service boundaries. Holy Cross is a “peak winter” utility because that’s when its customers demand the most electricity, most of which is derived from far beyond its service areas and our community.

If you’re a typical customer of Holy Cross, of which there are 55,000 today, you are a member of the cooperative, meaning that you own part of the company. The electricity you consume comes from a mix of 63 percent coal, 20 percent natural gas, 11 percent renewables (wind, hydro and solar), and 6 percent “market economy” (best priced energy from numerous sources).

Holy Cross is an 8 percent owner of Comanche Unit 3, a 750-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Pueblo, which became operational in 2010. Otherwise, Holy Cross buys most of its power from Xcel Energy, one of the largest electric and natural gas companies in the U.S. Xcel serves 3.4 million electricity customers and 1.9 million natural gas customers in eight states, with annual revenues of $10.3 billion.

Xcel pulls its power from a network of utilities in the mountains and across the Great Plains, which in turn draw their power from overlapping regional networks. Xcel directly serves a portion of the town of Carbondale and delivers electricity from an energy portfolio of 52.3 percent coal, 35.4 percent natural gas, 9.7 percent non-hydro renewables (primarily wind), 1.9 percent hydro and 0.7 percent other.

Xcel owns and operates the 103-year-old Shoshone Power Plant in Glenwood Canyon eight miles east of Glenwood Springs, producing 14 megawatts of power, enough to serve about 14,000 homes. Xcel’s wind program is the third largest in the nation. Still, a sizeable portion of Xcel generation comes from Black Hills Energy, based in Rapid City, South Dakota, whose primary energy resource is coal.

Next week, Part II of “The Paths of Power” will explore the green side of energy production, delivery and energy use.

(Sources: 2010 Colorado Utilities Report, Colorado Governor’s Energy Office; Xcel Energy; Holy Cross Energy; Black Hills Energy; Western Area Power Association (WAPA); Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska (MEAN); City of Aspen; City of Glenwood Springs; Aspen Skiing Co.; Ski Sunlight.)

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