Aspen Poised to Move to 100 Percent Renewable Electricity

Cities around the country are turning to wind, solar, and hydropower to meet energy needs

When it comes to going green, the real action appears to be happening in cities. Georgetown, Texas, recently announced plans to source 100 percent of its electricity from renewable wind and solar power within two years.

Elsewhere, a handful of communities across the country are already running entirely on power generated by renewable energy sources. Greensburg, Kansas, was nearly wiped off the map by a powerful tornado in 2007. But this small community bounced back and embraced sustainability in a big way, setting a goal to reach 100 percent renewable electricity as part of a comprehensive sustainability plan. With the completion of the Greensburg Wind Farm in 2010, all of the town’s electricity now comes from wind power. In Scituate, Massachusetts, a 1.5-MW wind turbine and a 3-MW solar PV system provide enough energy to power all municipal facilities entirely on renewables. The small island community of Kodiak, Alaska, also gets nearly all of its power (99.7 percent) from renewable energy sources, mostly hydropower with some wind power in the mix. And last fall Burlington, Vermont, reached the 100-percent renewable mark with the purchase of a local hydroelectric facility.

aerial photo of a town in the mountainsRed Mountain ProductionsAspen, Colorado, aims to secure 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2015.

Now the swanky mountain community of Aspen, Colorado, is set to join the exclusively renewable electricity ranks. As of 2014, about 75 percent of the city’s power came from renewable energy, nearly half from hydropower. Power purchased from wind farms in Nebraska made up the rest of the renewable mix. New contracts for additional wind power capacity, as well as a small amount of landfill gas, are under negotiation and, if approved, Aspen will achieve its goal of 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of this year.

That goal is part of a broader initiative to address the threat of climate change through community-wide greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Aspen’s Canary Initiative aims to reduce emissions 30 percent below 2004 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 2004 levels by 2050. The greening of the municipal utility Aspen Electric’s portfolio to an entirely renewable standard emerged as a goal of that initiative.

Aspen had a bit of a head start — in fact, its history of harnessing local hydroelectric power dates back to the late 19th century, when it was a silver mining town. Nearly a century later, in the 1980s, Aspen’s civic leaders made the decision to commit to a local, renewable energy supply with the construction of two new hydroelectric plants, one at Ruedi Reservoir and the other at Maroon Creek. In 2014, the city began purchasing hydropower from the Ridgway Dam plant located just outside Telluride, Colorado. Aspen also buys into a federal hydropower allocation through the Western Area Power Administration. Another proposed hydroelectric project in Aspen generated controversy within the environmental community due to concerns about impacts on local creeks.

The rest of Aspen’s electricity comes via power purchase agreements with the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska (MEAN), the city’s wholesale electricity provider. Through this cooperative, Aspen buys power from wind farms in the Nebraskan cities of Kimball, Ainsworth, Bloomfield, Petersburg, and Crofton Bluffs, as well as one in Wessington Springs, South Dakota.

Will Dolan, Renewable Energy Manager, City of Aspen, is working with MEAN on new contracts for wind power and a small amount of landfill gas. He hopes to have the contracts approved by August, when the wholesale provider convenes its quarterly board meeting. “Our goal is to have them effective immediately upon that approval, which we anticipate around the 20th of August,” Dolan said in an interview.

That approval would enable Aspen to meet its 100-percent renewable electricity target, with an anticipated mix of 46 percent hydropower, 53 percent wind power, and 1 percent landfill gas. As Dolan pointed out, Aspen would achieve this goal while maintaining some of the lowest residential electricity rates in the state. “As it’s currently negotiated, the contracts will not raise current electric rates,” he said.

Cities will likely have to overcome hurdles in the transition to clean, renewable electricity. For Aspen, it’s taken several decades of planning and investments that are finally paying off. It’s also taken a lot of negotiation with the city’s wholesale electricity provider.

“A big challenge for us has been to have this goal be such an outlier, where our interests and our objectives don’t align with the majority of other communities that are part of this wholesale energy cooperative,” Dolan explained. The tricky part, he said, has been trying to convince the organization that Aspen can achieve its renewable electricity goal without upsetting MEAN’s business model or interfering with electricity reliability for the other communities. Dolan noted that the Nebraska cooperative has stakes in coal-fired power plants, and this power has been central to its business model. Aspen’s efforts are contrary to that model, and should the city succeed in achieving its renewable electricity goal, other communities might try to follow its example.

“It’s like trying to turn around this cruise ship,” he said. “I think it’s a concern of this Nebraska cooperative that everyone will run from one side of the boat to the other and capsize the whole thing.”

But Aspen has remained committed to its sustainability goals, even if that means breaking from the “business as usual” mold.

“We’re on the bleeding tip of the spear,” said Dolan. “We’re encountering all these kinks along the way, and there’s really not much precedent for us to point to and figure out how to do this, because it hasn’t really been done before in the way that we’re doing it.”

“What we’re trying to do when we achieve this goal,” he added, “is just underline the fact that it’s possible.”

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