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Small hydropower providers are hoping it’s their time to shine as Colorado moves toward a renewables future

“My dream is to get to the world where hydropower is like rooftop solar," said Kurt Johnson, a hydropower advocate who co-authored the Colorado Energy Office’s “2015 Small Hydropower Handbook.”

Delta-Montrose Electric Association Renewable Energy Engineer James Heneghan inspects a gate where water enters a hydroelectric power plant located on a canal fed with water from the Gunnison Tunnel June 4, 2013, near Montrose. Construction of the power plant began in March 2012 to generate electricity from water. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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OURAY — The summer was dry. The water is low. So the acidity in the trickling Uncompahgre River, after it percolates through the mine-pocked Red Mountain Pass, is so high that it’s eating through the pipes that feed Eric Jacobson’s turbines.

This means his small hydropower plant isn’t cranking out much electricity. But even in the dead of winter, the Ouray Hydroelectric Power Plant — one of the oldest operating power plants in the country — can generate more than 4 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually or enough to power about 40 homes.

“It’s a very old system, that’s for sure,” says Jacobson as the century-old Pelton wheels whir in the riverside plant that started sparking electricity in 1886. “It’s kicking and screaming as we drag it into the 21st century, but it still works great.”

Since he bought the Ouray Hydroelectric Power Plant in 1992, Eric Jacobson has spent more than $1 million into restoring the dam, replacing pipes and modernizing the power house. The plant is one of the oldest hydroelectric generating stations in the U.S., producing enough power to light 40 homes for a year. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As the West grapples with a warmer, drier climate emaciating rivers and threatening major hydropower projects at reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell, independent hydropower providers are hoping their time to shine finally has arrived — especially as Colorado Gov. Jared Polis pushes to have the whole state running on renewable power by 2040.

MORE: Colorado power companies bet big on net-zero emissions as state debates 100% renewable energy future

Small-hydropower proponents have been championing the power hiding in moving water for almost two decades with little success, their cheers bouncing off solar arrays, wind turbines and the giant dams on major rivers. In the last 15 years, the number of hydropower facilities in Colorado has stayed around 60, with capacity of about 680,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year.

Hydropower provides about 5 percent of all the electricity used in Colorado, a sliver that hasn’t really changed in the last decade.

Even after more than 15 years of federal and state legislation, incentives and programs designed to encourage more small hydroelectric projects, growth in Colorado hydropower is stalled.

Antique brass gauges in the Ouray Hydroelectric Power Plant. (Nina Riggio, special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado voters in 2004 approved the nation’s first Renewable Energy Standard, requiring major providers to have 10 percent of their electricity come from renewable sources by 2015. The state legislature has increased that minimum percentage of renewable energy three times since 2004, with the current legislation requiring 20 percent of the energy provided by cooperative-owned utilities to come from renewable energy by 2020.

The federal 2013 Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act, authored by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver and mirroring similar legislation in Colorado, allowed small hydropower projects — up to 5 megawatts — planned for existing conduits, such as tunnels, canals and other manmade structures, to secure licensing approval in as a little as 60 days.

The next year Congress passed legislation streamlining the Bureau of Reclamation approval process for hydropower projects as well as funding a lengthy list of incentives for developers.

The Gunnison Tunnel, opened in 1909, has fed the agriculture farmland of the Uncompahgre Valley for over a century. The tunnel carries water from the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon to a canal system east of Montrose. Water from the tunnel powers small hydro electric power plants. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Still, it wasn’t enough to kickstart a wave of next-gen hydropower. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved 107 small, conduit projects since 2014, with a capacity of about 33 megawatts of electricity.

Last fall DeGette and North Carolina Republican Rep. Richard Hudson shaved even more regulation from no-longer tiny hydropower projects. The America’s Water Infrastructure Act enabled conduit hydropower projects up to 40 megawatts to sidestep even more of the costly and burdensome FERC requirements and qualify for faster licensing, with approval in only 45 days.

Colorado, where water pours off mountains and is diverted through thousands of miles of manmade structures, has emerged as a national leader for small hydropower projects, changing the paradigm from big dams to sedan-sized generators in ditches.

A newly built hydro electric power plant generates electricity inside a DMEA hydro power facility using water from the Gunnison Tunnel on June 4, 2013 near Montrose. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Last summer a U.S. Department of Energy-funded assessment of conduit hydropower potential in municipal water systems showed that simple hydroelectric generators built in existing tunnels, canals and pipelines could generate more than 34 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 25,000 to 34,000 Colorado homes. The Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Hydropower Partnership Project shows hydroelectric potential in existing pressurized irrigation systems could generate another 30 megawatts of electricity.

So, lurking in the way Colorado moves water, is enough power for upwards of 65,000 homes.

“We are just getting to the point now where people even understand that this exists as an opportunity. Hydropower development has been stifled for decades by our current regulatory regime,” said Kurt Johnson, a hydropower advocate who co-authored the Colorado Energy Office’s “2015 Small Hydropower Handbook.”

MORE: Jared Polis wants Colorado 100 percent powered by renewable energy, but talk is easier than the walk

Johnson pushed hard for Congress to shave approval for certain hydropower projects in existing water systems down to zero days, which would allow farmers, ranchers and municipalities upgrading existing pipelines to install small hydropower systems with a quick phone call. His mission for the last decade has been to ease the regulatory costs and burdens that have buried hydropower projects.

When Johnson looks at the new federal legislation, the many incentives, the increased focus on renewables and drought-ravaged water users set on improving efficiency, he hopes the dawn of small hydropower has arrived

“My dream is to get to the world where hydropower is like rooftop solar,” he said.

Water is diverted into a hydro electric power plant located on a canal fed with water from the Gunnison Tunnel June 4, 2013 near Montrose. (William Woody, special to The Colorado Sun)

That requires a jump in hydro technology, where a modular system can simply be plugged into existing pipelines just as a solar array can be installed a home’s roof. And the time for that technology is nigh, as water efficiency becomes mandatory in the grips of a 19-year drought that appears to be the new normal. So, for example, when a farmer is upgrading to a pipeline irrigation system why not think about tapping that pressure to turn a small turbine that can generate electricity that feeds the grid, Johnson said.

“We need to get the point where it is plug and play and you can take one piece of pipe out and replace it with a section that generates power and plug it into the wall,” said Johnson, noting that the economic opportunities from selling power back to energy providers — net metering — is yet another incentive for water users to install conduit hydropower. “Kudos to the new governor for setting such ambitious goals, but if I have a message right now, it’s ‘Time is wasting here people.’ Hydro will need to be a part of our renewable goals. With so many projects with zero environmental impact, it just makes sense to get them built.”

Hydropower is not complex. Moving water turns turbines. Turbines generate electricity.

Back on the banks of the Uncompahgre River, Jacobson is using century-old equipment to generate electricity for the San Miguel Power Association, which has been buying his power since 2011. He bought the plant at the Colorado-Ute Electric Association bankruptcy auction in 1992 for $10.

He came to the auction prepared to pay fair market value, but when he realized he was the only bidder who was prequalified with a FERC license — from his operation of the iconic Bridal Veil Powerhouse above Telluride — he low-balled. He spent plenty getting the neglected power plant running, but the plant has hummed along for the past quarter century with a couple staffers keeping things in check.

“These little independent power plants should be important parts of any energy portfolio because our peak in the spring and summer is in the evening, when solar and wind are pretty well fading, so you don’t need power storage like you do with only wind or solar,” Jacobson said.

Water from the Gunnison Tunnel flows through a canal system near Montrose on June 4, 2013. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jacobson’s Ouray plant is part of a network of historic power plants that ignited the electrification of America. The Ames Hydro Generating Station near Ophir was built in 1890 by Telluride power entrepreneur Lucien L. Nunn and George Westinghouse. It was the first power plant in the world to transmit AC current, using technology invented by Nikola Tesla.

A 1905 hydropower plant built near the original Ames hydro station remains in service for Xcel Energy today. The rotors from that original Ames plant were moved to the Ouray power plant to convert it to AC power. Today, the rusting rotors sit near the edge of the plant’s driveway.

MORE: Read more environmental coverage from The Colorado Sun.

The legacy generating plants like Ames and Ouray may not be delivering huge loads of electricity — not like the hydro projects at Ridgway Reservoir or the Delta-Montrose Electric Association’s five generators in Montrose County on the Uncompahgre Water Users Association’s South Canal. But the historical plants — as well as the newer projects — show how even a few spinning turbines can tap passing water to help meet Western Slope communities’ demands for clean power.

The San Miguel Power Association, which serves customers in seven Western Colorado counties, has seen a growing number of its members using their personally developed hydropower generators, said Alex Shelley, spokesman for the association.

“Hydro is a good opportunity in our region,” Shelley said. “All these sort of partnerships are a wonderful way for people to take advantage of the power we have all around us.”


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