Hydropower charges growers

Tuesday, March 1, 2011 5:52 PM
Dan Huntington checks the output of his small hydropower generator, about 5,000 watts, in a small shed that houses the turbine and inverters necessary to link to the grid and power a nearby home. Huntington installed the system in May of last year, has since produced about 15,000 kilowatt hours of power and expects to recoup the cost of installation in about 7 years.

DURANGO — Using a small hydropower system, Dan Huntington powers his father’s house, just down the road, using only the water that flows through his property.

The system, installed on his ditch last year, consists of a turbine at the end of a pressurized pipeline and generates 3,000 watts a day in the winter. The number triples in the summer, Huntington said.

Irrigation ditches crisscross La Plata County, but Huntington, a rancher and hay farmer west of Breen, is one of the few people in the county pursuing small hydropower. A long and intensive permitting process through the federal government, along with the large initial cost of the systems, have been the biggest barriers to the spread of the technology, energy officials said.

But local interest in hydropower has been growing, and a new pilot program will streamline the permitting process for small producers, suggesting there may be a future for water to play more of a role in powering La Plata County.

“In terms of the potential, we’re just starting to scratch the surface,” said Michael Ellis, a system designer with Shaw Solar, a local solar contracting company that is considering entering the small hydropower market. “In a dollars-per-watt scenario, micro-hydro is hands down the most effective way of generating power from a renewable resource.”

Hydropower is created by running water through a hydraulic turbine that spins and drives a generator shaft to create electricity. Most small hydro projects, also called micro-hydro, divert a portion of a river or creek’s flow or are constructed on established channels, such as irrigation ditches.

Among other renewable resources, hydropower is known for its consistency, efficiency and durability.

According to the Governor’s Energy Office, there are hundreds of sites in Colorado that could support small hydro, and about 90 percent of that potential lies in rural areas, Francisco Flores, a renewable energy program associate with the Governor’s Energy Office, wrote in an e-mail.

Much of the reason is because rural areas already have infrastructure such as pipelines and ditches that are associated with hydropower, said Bradley Florentin, whose company Blue Earth was contracted by the Governor’s Energy Office to shorten and simplify the process to get a hydropower permit.

The energy office began the pilot program to streamline the permitting process in August with an aim to tap into the state’s hydro potential. The current permitting process through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission takes an average of nine months to a year and is a widely acknowledged barrier to small hydro development, Flores said.

Under the new program, the energy office will assess the potential of hydropower projects and assist with the permit applications. The program has the potential to cut the permit-processing time in half, Flores said.

He said the energy office is getting “plenty” of interest in the pilot program.

Local interest in hydropower also is on the rise, said Mark Schwantes, manager of corporate services at La Plata Electric Association.

LPEA receives a request about every two weeks from landowners who see micro-hydro as a new source of potential revenue, Schwantes said.

“It’s just a matter of getting inertia behind it, then it’ll take off,” he said.

Richard Grush, president of Hermosa Ditch Co., said many local ditch companies, including his, are interested in pursuing micro-hydro if it makes financial sense.

“It now seems like a worthy pursuit,” Grush said in an e-mail.

But for hydropower to succeed in La Plata County, there needs to be a way for small producers to sell their energy back to the electric co-op for a fair price, said Harry Riegle, with the Sustainability Alliance of Southwest Colorado, which advocates for local energy production.

Right now LPEA lets hydropower producers use their energy generation to offset consumption or will buy their power. But the energy co-op’s current payment process isn’t as transparent or equitable as it could be, Riegle said.

Cost is another issue, said Ian Frech, owner of Insight Energy, a local company focusing on renewable-energy power generation. Though government grants and loans are available, renewable-energy systems can cost $40,000 or more.

“There’s huge potential, but the question is who’s going to cough up money to do it?” Frech said.

Nonetheless, in an area where people already have put so many resources into harnessing water, hydropower is an obvious next step, Frech said.

“Why don’t we take energy out of the water to help us?” he said.