Few ﬁreworks fly at Aspen hydroelectric forum
January 19, 2012
ASPEN – Wednesday’s Aspen Business Luncheon forum on the city’s controversial Castle Creek hydroelectric-plant project was primarily a polite affair, with little in the way of new information to sway the undecided or those looking for a reason to change their opinions.City Manager Steve Barwick and utilities director Dave Hornbacher stuck to the line that despite recent increases in the project’s budget, the plant still would be a good investment for the community in the long run with little impact on area streams and their ecosystems.Meanwhile, Paul Menter, CFO of destination services firm Rocky Mountain Connections and a former Aspen finance director, joined Western Rivers Institute executive director Ken Neubecker in attempting to paint a picture of a government initiative that has run amok financially and would threaten environmental harm if allowed to proceed.No fireworks erupted until late in the proceeding, during the question-and-answer period. Former Aspen Councilman Jack Johnson, who was in office during Menter’s tenure in city government, asked the former finance director why he never raised any concerns about the project during City Hall discussions on the topic back in 2007, the year voters passed a $5.5 million bond issue to help fund the project.According to Johnson, Menter was heavily involved in crafting the language for the referendum on the bond issue, which garnered the approval of 77 percent of those who voted. Today, critics say that voters didn’t understand the wording of the bond issue nearly five years ago and that turnout in the election was too low to qualify as widespread support for the project.”You never, to my knowledge, raised any of the concerns you’ve raised here today,” Johnson said. “If we went forward (in 2007), in large part because you were part of the discussion then, how do you explain yourself today?”Menter refused to answer Johnson’s question directly but admonished him for his query.”I have a question,” Menter replied, looking out into the audience. “Who here wants to talk about me, and who here wants to talk about the project?”After the room was silent for a second or two, Menter pronounced, “The people have spoken, Jack.”And with that, the meeting’s fireworks fizzled out. Still, the exchange served to illustrate the passion on both sides of the issue, which has been raging for the past couple of years. That passion was lacking during most of Wednesday’s event, however, as those on both sides of the issue sought to make their case in a relatively genteel fashion.
The project aims to divert water from Castle and Maroon creeks to a plant a few miles southwest of the city. In December, the council approved a staff rezoning request to trade open space for property on Power Plant Road for a building that would house the automated plant.The city’s right to use water from the Castle-Maroon watershed for a new plant is the subject of a Water Court lawsuit filed primarily by landowners in the vicinity of the creeks. They contend that the city abandoned its rights for a plant in that area many years ago. On Tuesday, organizers of a petition aimed at rescinding the recent City Council ordinance that rezoned property for the plant turned in the signatures they gathered to City Clerk Kathryn Koch. Aspenites Ward Hauenstein and Maurice Emmer said that although they needed only 594 valid signatures, a figure representing 10 percent of the city electorate, they were able to garner 953.Koch said she has until Feb. 17 to determine whether enough signatures are valid to force further action on the matter. The 30-day period will precede a 10-day “protest” period in which anyone can present information to prove that certain signatures weren’t gathered properly.If enough signatures are valid and a protest is unsuccessful, the City Council must take one of two routes: rescind the rezoning ordinance on its own or send the issue to voters for a referendum on the land-use ordinance.Like others in attendance, Emmer, who recently moved to Aspen, took the microphone from luncheon coordinator Todd Shaver during the Q&A portion to make a statement on the issue without really forming a question.Emmer said his primary concern is that the city’s cost estimates for the project and its long-term financial outlook are based on “a huge number of assumptions.””My point is there are too many assumptions,” he said. “A point just made earlier was, ‘Well, this is very complex. And when you have a complex problem, then you have to bring in a lot of experts and a lot of opinions.’ And my reaction to that is, why do we have to rely on so many opinions, which are only guesses in my opinion?”Why don’t we look at alternatives that don’t require as many assumptions and opinions?” Emmer continued. “The opinions will not get us anything. It’s only the facts of the future that will determine the impact, both financial and environmental.”Emmer pointed out the city’s “assumption” about the future high cost of buying coal-generated electricity. The city has touted the hydroplant as a way of reducing its reliance on coal-fired power.”Read the Wall Street Journal almost any day, and you’ll read about the oversupply of natural gas that’s driving down the cost of generating electricity because gas is replacing coal in many cases,” Emmer said. “That means that the whole industry and the pricing of electricity are in flux.”He added that the city is even assuming that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will permit the plant despite having already spent $6.9 million toward the $10.5 million project. Initially, the city estimated that the entire project would cost slightly more than $6 million.Barwick addressed some of Emmer’s concerns. He said the city based its estimate on the price of coal-fired electricity on three scenarios: increases of 1 percent per year, 2 percent per year and 3 percent per year.”The federal government uses 2.9 percent as their assumption of future inflation in our economy, which is essentially equivalent to our highest assumption,” Barwick said.He added that federal regulations will result in the shutdown of coal-fired electricity plants because of renewed enforcement measures by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Amid the back-and-forth, there was no discussion during the luncheon of recent studies backed by project opponents that put the long-term cost of the plant at many millions more than the city’s $10.5 million estimate. Early in the meeting, Barwick and Hornbacher talked of Aspen’s long history of hydroelectric power and the benefits to the environment. The city already has hydroplant operations using Reudi Reservoir and Maroon Creek.The city will implement safeguards to ensure the health of the streams during periods of low runoff, the city officials stressed. They mentioned their plans for a “slow start” in which the plant would ramp up production over many years while doing extensive environmental monitoring before reaching full capacity.Barwick spoke of how the plant would save the city, and the community at large, a lot of money after 30 to 35 years. That’s when the city’s initial investment is predicted to be fully paid off. “Like all energy production, (hydro) requires an investment,” the city manager firstname.lastname@example.org