A decade of striving to build a clean energy portfolio culminated in success for Aspen, Colorado, when the city recently announced that its municipal electric utility now receives all of its power from renewable sources.
A contract the city signed in late August with its power wholesaler Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska (MEAN) replaces coal power—about 20 percent of Aspen’s electricity supply—with wind energy. The MEAN purchase, which put Aspen over the finish line, will initially add less than $2 per month to the average residential utility bill.
Aspen Utilities and Environmental Initiatives Director David Hornbacher praised MEAN, noting, “If it weren’t for MEAN we couldn’t be in this position. The members (of MEAN) are valued and proactive – this is a win-win for both organizations.”
Mixing it up
The City of Aspen Utilities energy portfolio consists of about 53 percent wind power and 46 percent hydroelectricity, with small amounts of solar and landfill gas. The wind comes through MEAN from wind farms in the Nebraska cities of Kimball, Ainsworth, Bloomfield, Petersburg and Crofton Bluffs, and one in Wessington Springs, South Dakota. In addition to an allotment from Western, generators on Ruedi Reservoir, Maroon Creek and Ridgway Reservoir make up the hydropower portion.
“The challenge is to secure the most effective mix of renewables to meet the customer load reliably,” Hornbacher explained. “Each community’s energy use is unique, and each renewable energy source has its own personality.”
Getting the right mix means more than just resources, Hornbacher added. “The key is projects, conservation and efficiency and partners,” he said. “We are lucky to have such willing and supportive partners in MEAN, NREL [National Renewable Energy Laboratory] and Western.”
NREL worked with Aspen, MEAN and other agencies to define renewable energy, determine what projects would best fit with Aspen’s load and evaluate the utility’s conservation and efficiency measures. Those tools include a renewable energy mitigation program, green building code, tiered rate structure and energy performance contracting. “If you aren’t working with customers and managing your load, you could wind up using more energy,” said Hornbacher.
Customer support for a local renewable energy supply dates back to the 1980s when the Aspen city council decided to build the plants at Ruedi Reservoir and Maroon Creek. The community formalized the plan to go 100-percent renewable 10 years ago. “Aspen residents have always had very strong environmental values,” said Hornbacher. “It helps to live in a town where the civic leadership is representative of the community.”
Smaller municipalities so far have a clear edge on large metropolitan areas in “going green.” The mountain resort town of 7,000 joins Burlington, Vermont, (pop. 45,000) and Greensburg, Kansas, (pop. 800) in becoming the first cities in the nation to reach the all-renewable energy goal. Georgetown, Texas, (pop. 47,000) plans to follow these leaders next year with a 25-year contract to buy 150 megawatts (MW) of clean power from new SunEdison solar plants.
Hornbacher noted that being small is not necessarily an advantage, although a smaller load opens up the possibility of fitting smaller projects into the portfolio. “It is important to note that each of these communities took a different course to reach their goal. You have to look carefully at your own situation,” he cautioned. “One important takeaway is that renewable energy does not automatically translate to higher rates. Aspen’s residential rates are still among the lowest in the state.”
Going above, beyond
Aspen’s vision does not stop at the city limits, however. Hornbacher hopes the city’s accomplishment will spark a dialogue on the state level and challenge other municipalities to engage with their energy supply.
The media beyond Colorado have taken notice as well. Television stations from California, Utah and China have interviewed the utility to find out how a small town in Colorado achieved the big goal of shifting its energy supply to renewable resources. “We’ve demonstrated that it is possible,” Hornbacher said. “Realistically, we hope we can inspire others to achieve these higher goals.”
That is the kind of attention Western likes to see its customers receive. We congratulate the city of Aspen on setting their sights high, sticking to their plan and creating a clean, reliable energy future.