Gravity powers Snowmass with new micro-hydroelectric infrastructure

Ribbon-cutting commemorates new eco-friendly energy source

Mayor Bill Madsen cuts a ribbon held by town officials and climate action stakeholders to commemorate a new micro-hydroelectric turbine in Snowmass Village. From left: Snowmass Village Environmental Advisory Board member Andrew Wickes; Snowmass Village Transportation Director Sam Guarino; Mayor Madsen; Snowmass Water and Sanitation District board member Doug Throm; EAB member and Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) Community Sustainability Manager Phi Filerman.
Kaya Williams/Snowmass Sun

Snowmass Village is a community that loves gravity: It’s what gets skiers from the top of the mountain to the bottom in the winter and what gets downhill mountain bikers from point A to point B on flow trails in the summer, after all.

So it makes sense that the town might harness that force for power as well as for the enjoyment of powder.

A project to implement new micro-hydroelectric power infrastructure was completed in March in an underground vault near the Snowmass Center; town officials and climate action stakeholders met there last Thursday for a ribbon-cutting with Mayor Bill Madsen.

“This project is really exciting because hey, we’re all gravity seekers, we’re all skiers, we’re into taking advantage of the gravity and that’s exactly what this project does,” Madsen said.

Here’s how it works: Water starts at the treatment plant located near the mid-mountain Coney Glade chairlift at Snowmass Ski Area, according to Doug Throm from the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District, which was also a partner in the project. (You can spot the plant near the small pond right below the Village Express.)

That water then flows downhill, picking up speed and building up pressure in the process, Throm said.

That pressure has to go somewhere — ideally not right into the houses that the water is running toward. Historically, the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District has used specially designed valves to release the pressure.

Now, with the micro hydroelectric turbine in place, the district can use some of that pressure to spin a turbine that helps generate power to the tune of around 20 kilowatts per hour, according to a data sheet Throm provided.

That’s enough to power 16 average-sized houses for that same period of time; depending on demand, the turbine can run for 12 to 20 hours per day, the sheet states.

This infrastructure is separate from the micro-hydroelectric plant underneath Fanny Hill that channels the power of runoff up on the mountain; that plant went live as part of an Aspen Skiing Co. initiative nearly nearly two decades ago.

The new turbine is located in an underground “vault” near the Snowmass Center that was rebuilt around 2008 and was “always designed to have room for the turbine,” Throm said.

The project has been in the works since around 2018, with former Assistant Town Manager Travis Elliott leading the charge for most of that time. Sam Guarino, who was just promoted from the town’s transportation supervisor to transportation director, has been carrying the torch since Elliott took a new gig as town manager in Parachute.

The town partnered with the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, Holy Cross Energy and the Department of Local Affairs to make the project a reality, with a big helping hand from the town’s volunteer Environmental Advisory Board.

Canyon Hydro manufactured the turbine, Nidec Motor Corp. made the generator and Bat Electric made the controls, according to the data sheet Throm provided.

The project cost about $230,000, Madsen said — more than initially planned, but a “worthy investment” nonetheless that will pay off in about 22 years with “long-term benefits,” Madsen said.

“Hopefully this will run for 100 years,” Madsen said.