Energy Blend: Hydropower making a comeback in Northwest Colorado
One of the earliest forms of commercial power developed in Colorado — hydropower — is making a comeback in Northwest Colorado.
“Power bills are going up, so people are trying to figure out how to power things without buying electricity,” said B & B Irrigation owner Ed Brannan.
South of Telluride on the San Miguel River, the 3.5 megawatt Ames Hydroelectric Plant was built in 1891.
“It was the first power plant in the world to generate, transmit and sell alternating current electricity for commercial purposes,” according to Telluride Energy.
In the late 1800s communities across Colorado were harnessing hydropower.
“The original power supply for the town of Meeker was hydro,” said Trina Zagar-Brown, White River Electric Association general counsel and manager of member services.
In the 1920s and 30s, as rural electric co-ops began to come online — delivering cheaper, more-convenient energy from large scale power projects — many of the smaller, standalone hydropower stations were too much of a hassle to run, said Community Hydropower Consulting’s Richard Smart.
In 2007, then Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s “New Energy Economy” policies initiated a re-examination of the role of hydropower, particularly small-scale hydropower, in the energy mix.
By that time, however, the federal permitting process for hydro electric power was time-consuming and costly, Smart said.
Then, in 2013, Congress passed the Small Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act to simplify the permitting process.
“Without the change in policy, it would cost tens of thousands of dollars, and three to 10 years just to permit these projects,” said Sam Anderson, certified energy manager and program administrator at the Colorado Department of Agriculture. “Colorado played a pivotal role in designing the policy and testing the new regulatory processes involved with a project on farm in Rio Blanco County.”
There is no clearly recognized size for a hydro project to be considered small.
The Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority define small hydropower projects as “those that generate 10 megawatts or less.” By comparison, small hydropower is defined in the Colorado Small Hydro Handbook as “development on existing infrastructure or hydropower with generating capacity of 2 megawatts or less.”
Using that definition, in 2013, the Colorado Department of Agriculture completed a report showing the following.
• Approximately 7 percent of irrigated land, primarily in mountainous areas, had systems with enough pressurization to produce about 30 megawatts of power.
• More than 120 potential project sites exist on irrigation ditches with flows greater than 100 cubic feet per second or drops of at least 150 feet.
• Approximately 102 agriculture-related dams with technical development potential.
In the 2015 revision of the Colorado Small Hydro Handbook, studies by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Energy had identified more than 40 sites with the potential to produce in excess of 730,000 megawatt hours per year.
“I think we have some of the best programs in the county,” said Kurt Johnson, of Telluride Energy and the Colorado Small Hydro Association.
Northwest Colorado farmers, ranchers and municipalities have joined rural utilities in developing small-scale hydropower as a viable alternative.
Brannan has worked on two Routt County ranches — Bear River and Fish & Cross — near Yampa that have installed mechanical hydro systems to power center-pivot irrigation equipment. They divert water from the Coal Creek Ditch. Coal Creek is a tributary of the Bear River, one of the headwaters of the Yampa River.
“In Routt County, they can gather enough gravity to have enough pressure to run the hydro and the pivot, and this makes it so that they don’t have any electric to power the system,” Brannan said.
In Moffat County, many irrigators pull water from rivers and creeks that lack the flow, elevation or pressure needed to make hydropower generation feasible.
“We see the best opportunity in converting from labor-intensive flood irrigation to more efficient center-pivot irrigation systems with integrated hydropower,” Anderson said.
Furthermore, he believes “opportunities exist in Moffat County to use irrigation hydropower with net-metered hydroelectric systems or non-electric, hydro-mechanical systems. The most likely economic opportunities occur near the Fortification Creek, Yampa River and the Green River in northwestern Moffat County.”
Power generated from these small projects typically runs the equipment, but systems are not usually designed to generate excess power for the grid.
In comparison, two small hydropower projects in Routt and Rio Blanco counties generate power for the grid.
The John Fetcher Power Plant at Stagecoach Reservoir has the capacity to deliver 800 kilowatts of power to Yampa Valley Electric Association.
YVEA’s program allows some of its “largest members to obtain Stagecoach hydro and advertise the value of receiving power from this local, clean energy source,” according to the project webpage.
In Rio Blanco County, White River Electric Association in September commissioned the Miller Creek Ditch Hydro Project, which is expected to generate 500 kilowatt hours per year.
“The project stands on its own, financially. It provides production credit to the ditch company, and they will apply half to cover the cost of ditch maintenance,” Zagar-Brown said.
WREA has investigated four or five other micro hydro projects in the valley, but for a variety of reasons, they have not met WREA standards of making both economic and electrical sense. Even so, WREA is willing to consider other projects.
“These projects are great. It’s an exciting opportunity for White River to be a part of the project. We see it as a great opportunity to utilize all of our local natural resources to benefit our membership,” Zagar-Brown said.
The potential to develop or redevelop hydropower from existing infrastructure is growing as new technology is allowing some municipalities, such as Basalt, Manitou Springs and Grand Lake, to create new small hydro production from existing water treatment facilities.
“Financial and technical assistance for small hydro is available from several agencies in Colorado,” Anderson said.
Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.