Silverton microhydro first in Colorado to seek license under new federal law
SILVERTON, Colo. – Now that was easy! A small hydro project near Silverton breezed through the federal permitting process—something not so easily done just a few months ago.
The small turbine simply harnesses the power of the water flowing from an existing pipeline at the old Mayflower Mill, which is now a museum maintained by the San Juan Historical Society.
Altogether, it can generate 11 kilowatts, which isn’t much. But even so, navigating the former rules of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would have cost more than the hydroelectric equipment itself. Few such projects got completed.
“Requiring a federal hydropower license for a tiny, non-controversial hydro project on an existing pipeline was completely nuts,” says Beverly Rich, chair of the historical society.
Legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama amended the process in two ways. One law allows an exemption for small projects of less than 5 megawatts. Sandpoint, Idaho, was the first in the United States to apply for a project with that exemption with a 65-kilowatt project.
Silverton’s is the first in Colorado. It will generate roughly the amount of electricity used by 10 U.S. homes, according to Kurt Johnson of Telluride Energy, the consultant on the project.
But some of the greatest potential may exist in agriculture infrastructure. On Idaho’s Snake River Plain, a canal company near Jerome plans 4,800 kilowatts. But the concept is the same: the projects use existing disruptions of flows in creeks and rivers and cause no new impacts.
River advocates are OK with the new process. “We are pleased that FERC granted an exemption of the Silverton project,” says Matt Rice, the Colorado conservation director for American Rivers. “It is a great example of hydropower done right without creating new environmental impacts.”
The same group staunchly opposed Aspen’s plans to divert water from two local creeks for hydroelectric production, a new project. A similar project, however, had been abandoned 50 years ago.