Ski town’s ‘ingenious’ heating plan a model for New Energy Economy

The Eagle River from the deck of the new LEED-certified Westin in downtown Avon, Colo. (Photo/David O. Williams)
The Eagle River from the deck of the new LEED-certified Westin in downtown Avon, Colo. (Photo/David O. Williams)
The term “shovel-ready” has been bandied about quite a bit lately as public and private entities hungrily eye the Obama stimulus plan, now being called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009.

But how about “sludge-ready”?

The mountain town of Avon, at the foot of Beaver Creek ski area, isn’t waiting for the expected $825 billion injection of federal funds. Instead, it’s already pursuing an innovative process that would use heat created during wastewater treatment to warm public facilities.

Avon’s Public Works Department last spring proposed a $5 million project that would use warmth generated from treating wastewater to heat the town’s recreation center pool and a street snowmelt system planned as part of its Main Street downtown redevelopment.

The state likes the idea so much, hoping it could serve as a model for other communities, that the Department of Local Affairs in October approved a $1.5 million grant for the plan under its New Energy Communities Program.

The heat recovery program could put Avon on the national map as a small-town leader on the green-planning front, setting the town of 6,000 up for future state and federal funds. But a funding squabble with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District could derail the plan.

One of the biggest benefits the town sees from the innovative technology is the ability to dramatically reduce Avon’s carbon footprint, by not using fossil fuels to melt snow and heat its community pool. The project would also allow cooler water to flow back into the river — a boon to aquatic life during low-flow periods in the late summer.

Out of the proliferation of energy-hungry snowmelt systems under streets, sidewalks and driveways in ski towns like Vail and Aspen, local environmentalists have singled out Avon’s proposal for praise.

“The town limits snowmelt in public spaces in its new core — only where safety is a concern — then comes up with an ingenious, never-been-done, outside-the-box way to use heat generated from water treatment for that snowmelt, which in turn reduces the temperature of water released into the Eagle River, thereby improving river ecosystem health,” said Matt Scherr, executive director of the nonprofit Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability.

Despite public enthusiasm for the plan, however, some local officials fear a lack of commitment from the water district could put the program at risk.

“The governor considers this exactly the kind of project he wants to see to demonstrate his New Energy Economy,” Avon councilman Brian Sipes said in an e-mail. “He also likes it because other communities could do it too. [But] the grant was predicated on participation and cooperation by the water district, so if they pull their already pledged funding, the grant may be in jeopardy.”

When the town and water district first applied for the grant, Avon agreed to foot 60 percent of the tab not picked up by the state, and the water district agreed to handle 40 percent.

But a district spokeswoman said that agreement was made before engineering studies showed that the benefits to the water district — like having heat to melt snow on some of its property, to dry sludge produced during treatment, and heat the water treatment plant itself — were not as financially tangible as what the town was getting out of the deal.

“Identifying how the project benefited the district took a lot longer than some of these very obvious benefits to Avon, and so we’ve been trying to make our decision and be flexible as new information comes in, when there was a perception that we had somehow reneged,” water district Community Relations Manager Diane Johnson said.

And the water district stretches from Vail to to tiny Wolcott 20 miles northwest of the tony ski-town, so other constituents needed to be taken into consideration, she said.

A meeting today in Vail will determine whether the district will raise its commitment to $740,000, which is what the town now says it needs from the district to do the project, or keep its commitment at $332,400, the amount the board felt better reflected the benefit to the entire district.

Sipes said the biggest benefit is to the environment, adding that the “water district may have to address this situation anyway when their temporary permit to exceed the stream temperatures expires in 2013.”

In the meantime, local funding squabbles aside, federal money for such projects may be available in large amounts when Congress passes some form of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill.

According to a summary issued last week by House Appropriations Committee chairman Dave Obey (D-Wisc.), the bill will provide $32 billion to states to transform the nation’s energy infrastructure with alternative energy projects and another $19 billion for clean water projects.

The water district’s Johnson acknowledged the state is very interested in the Avon project but said fiscal responsibility is also critical to the district’s constituents. She also said the prospect of federal money is enticing.

“All public works entities are saying, ‘Do we get a piece of that, do we get a piece of that?’” Johnson said.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.