Guest opinion: City cranks up spin for hydroelectric project |

Guest opinion: City cranks up spin for hydroelectric project

Maurice Emmer
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

I not only approved this message, I wrote it.

The city of Aspen is dusting off its spin machine before the pep rally it plans for the Castle Creek Energy Center this week at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meeting. For example, The Aspen Times published an opinion piece April 5 written by three locals supporting Castle Creek hydro.

In revisionist history bearing the fingerprints of City Hall’s “Spin,” er, “Community Relations” Department, the Aspen residents lent their good names to personal slurs of project opponents and factual misrepresentations about the project. Exhuming this Frankenstein project’s history will come to grief for its proponents. Here, at least, is a truthful historic account.

The city was not “mandated by state engineers” to build an emergency drain line. Actually, the city obtained advice from a consulting engineer paid by the city. This engineer stated, in a four-paragraph letter, that “the need for a reliable failsafe outlet” from Thomas Reservoir “was identified during development of the design criteria for the proposed outlet structure and pipeline” to supply the Castle Creek Energy Center. That engineer acknowledged that state personnel had not even inspected the reservoir. That the pipeline design was for the Castle Creek Energy Center, not an emergency drain line, is confirmed by the title of the city’s bidding documents, “Castle Creek Energy Center – 42” and “Pipeline and Thomas Reservoir Intake Structures,” issued in late 2009.

To fast-track Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval, the city decided to seek a “conduit exemption” (for existing water lines that can be tapped for hydroelectric power). No suitable conduit existing, however, the city pretended to need an emergency drain line and obtained the engineer’s advice to lipstick the pig (as if a newly built drain line could be considered “existing”). One of many problems with the documentary record, however, is that the engineer’s advice came four months after the due date for bids that the city described as being for the Castle Creek Energy Center. The city asked contractors to build a “pipeline” expressly for the Castle Creek Energy Center then told everyone else the motivation was an emergency drain line – a drain line that could not qualify for the conduit exemption anyway because it was not pre-existing. Jeez, Louise!

The city abandoned the conduit-exemption farce because it was transparently false – not just to be a good citizen.

The Castle Creek Energy Center cannot be expected to run for 75 years without further significant cost. At the city’s Maroon Creek hydroelectric plant (much touted in the article), the turbine and other expensive equipment had to be replaced after only a few years. The Feb. 21, 1995, edition of The Aspen Times said, “A hydroelectric project that was supposed to save money … has instead ended up leaking money like a broken-down dam.” How soon would the city have to replace the turbine, etc., in the Castle Creek Energy Center? The city’s financial projections allow for none of this.

Nor has the city factored in streamflows and electrical production reduced by climate change. The city already has lowered its projected electrical output from the Castle Creek Energy Center in response to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s questions. Where was that information in last week’s Times article?

We are urged to throw good money after bad. Just spend another $3,746,000 (a mighty precise number coming from three average residents) because that is less than the $6,806,000 (more precision) already spent. If you had spent $6,800 on a “cream-puff” used car, would you necessarily spend another $3,700 on a new engine and transmission just because you’d already spent $6,800?

Or might you consider alternatives? Before spending more on the Castle Creek Energy Center, its financial viability should be proven, especially compared with alternatives. The projected generation cost of 10 to 11 cents per kilowatt-hour (bound to go up), above the market rate for clean electricity and not reflecting risks, will not be competitive.

The city’s own numbers offer a solution: Taking the city’s word today, half the pipeline cost (half of $3.2 million) isn’t part of this project, so the total cost will be $8.9 million (without further overruns). The $3.7 million not spent yet could be avoided, and we could recover, say, $750,000 for the $1.5 million turbine the city has already bought. This would save $4.45 million or 50 percent of the total project cost. Why double down on a bad bet instead of cutting the inevitable loss?

Yes, the city will have to pay the $5.5 million of bonds. Ignoring possible savings of $4.45 million by continuing the Castle Creek Energy Center project will not avoid the obligation to pay the bonds; it will only double the cost of a boondoggle that cannot produce clean electricity competitively. How about we stop the project and use the $4.45 million savings to pay the lion’s share of the bond debt?

The article admits that the city “has made mistakes.” You bet. The mistake is the Castle Creek Energy Center. The residents should not make the mistake of permitting the madness to continue.

Maurice Emmer is a retired attorney who lives in Aspen.

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