New laws make small hydro easier for dams, irrigation canals & water mains
by Allen Best
OURAY, Colo. – In the end, Ouray got its new hydroelectric plant, which monthly generates enough power to offset $1,600 in electricity used by pumps in the town’s hot springs swimming pool. But Mayor Bob Risch wishes that the two new federal laws signed by President Barack Obama in August had been adopted before he set out to get his project approved.
Those two new laws simplify the federal government’s process for small hydroelectric projects involving pre-existing infrastructure. Promoters say the laws will make it easier to harness the power of flowing water in existing irrigation canals, small dams, and even municipal water lines. Neither of the new laws will result in new dams or diversions. They apply only to existing infrastructure and to installations of 5 megawatts or less.
The previous process was cumbersome. “It was unbelievable,” says Risch, of requirements for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permit. “They sent you a list of all the steps you have to go through. For example, it included a list of 55 organizations to which we had to send letters, informing them that we were going to start this process and invite comment from them.”
As mayor, Risch had volunteered to do all this himself. A native of the town, he spent 33 years teaching astronomy and operating a planetarium in metropolitan Denver before retiring to Ouray, population 1,000.An old mining town set in a colorful box canyon of red and orange rocks, the town calls itself the Switzerland of America. In recent years its ice-climbing festival has become internationally renowned.
Ouray has used hydroelectric power since the late 1800s. At times, the price of locally generated electricity was undercut by more cheaply produced electricity from coal-fired power plants. In recent years, however, the Ouray Town Council adopted a goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 20 percent.
To that end, Ouray retrofitted its streetlights with LED technology, saving energy and money: $10,000 a year.
Another idea then came along: repurposing a 6,000-foot-long pipeline that had been laid by a bankrupt water-bottling company from a spring above Ouray. With 300 additional feet it would reach a site adjacent to the old generating turbine and could produce electricity.
Under U.S. law, however, any new electrical source involving water diversion tripped the FERC process. That process had been developed in the wake of the massive dam-building enterprises of the early 20th century, which had resulted in significant destruction of streams and associated aquatic life.
Those laws, however, painted with a very broad brush. “Insane” is how Kurt Johnson describes the FERC process.
Johnson has a small business, Telluride Energy, which is dedicated to hydroelectric adaptations of existing infrastructure such as the nation’s 80,000 dams, most of which are small and relatively few of which produce electricity.
Consultants could be hired to negotiate this process, but fees of $10,000 to $20,000 would have killed the economics of the project in Ouray. To save the project, Risch agreed to run this gauntlet for the town’s hydroelectric proposal. It was exhausting. Finally, in 2011, Ouray got FERC permission to install the turbine, which cost $3,500 and is now installed next to the town’s original generator. After a century, the fundamental technology of turbines is little changed.
Broad political support
Tellingly, the bills signed into law by Obama had sponsors from the far ends of the political spectrum in Colorado, from the very liberal to the Teapot Party conservative, as well as congressional sponsors from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Wyoming. “Congress finally found an energy source everyone likes,” announced The Washington Post.
Hydropower currently delivers 100,000 megawatts of installed capacity in the United States, making it by far the largest source of non-carbon renewable energy. Fearing big dams, mainline environmental groups have typically opposed including hydropower in mandates and incentives designed to expand renewable energy. They supported the reforms, however.
The key, says Matt Rice, the Colorado conservation director for American Rivers, is that sufficient environmental reviews will remain but stripped of unnecessary regulatory oversight.
Rice sees small hydro having a more substantial, but still limited role in carbon reduction, as a result of the new laws. “We’re talking about hundreds but not thousands of megawatts (collectively) in these projects,” he says. “But as far as a real contribution to our energy portfolio, it’s not huge.” But it is local and reliable, he adds, plus clean—if it uses existing infrastructure.
For example, one of the larger impacts might be to let town and cities replace pressure-reducing valves in water mains with devices that can harness the power of the water.
Johnson stresses the capacity of hydropower to meet baseline demand. Coal and gas plants do this very well. Wind and solar, not so much.
“Insofar as climate change becomes a real driver of development of energy markets, hydropower will benefit enormously,” says Johnson. “In the renewable world, when you compare hydro with its cousins wind and solar and start understanding capacity factors, it has 80 to 90 percent compared to 20 to 30 percent (for the others). Hydropower starts looking very, very good.”
In California, where Johnson is currently working, the new legislation combined with financial incentives unleashed by A.B. 32, the state’s climate-change law, provide strong incentives to retrofit irrigation canals with hydropower technology.
The new laws may encourage other projects in Colorado that have long been considered. The Taylor Park Dam, located near Crested Butte. Even the lesser flows of winter are enough to produce significant amounts of power, however.
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 29, 2013, issue of Mountain Town News. For a sample copy of the subscription-based e-zine, please request a copy by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org