MONTROSE – Over a century ago, when water from the newly built Gunnison Tunnel brought cool Colorado runoff to the emerging farmlands of the Uncompahgre Valley, it was said the crushing force of the tunnel's water could be used to generate electricity.
This antique idea is now producing kilowatts by the hundreds of thousands, part of a strategic plan by the Delta-Montrose Electric Association to integrate more renewable power sources into its energy portfolio.
Construction began in March 2012, and now DMEA engineers are completing final testing and adjustments to a small hydroelectric facility about one-eighth of a mile from where water emerges from the tunnel into what's known as the south canal.
A second power station is currently under construction and is planned to be operational in July, according to DMEA Renewable Energy Engineer James Heneghan. The second plant is designed to generate 3.5 megawatts for a combined total of 7.5 megawatts, estimated to be five percent of DMEA's annual member consumption of 110 megawatts.
At the first plant, water is diverted from a concrete spillway built in the 1940s into a 14-foot-wide pipe, which quickly constrains it into a 11-foot-wide pipe funneling flow to the generator around 300 yards downhill.
The force of the water turns a large “ship-like propeller,” producing a maximum of four megawatts of electrical power that is then transmitted to DMEA's East Montrose sub-station. Vibration sensors keep track of the generator's moving parts in a system engineered to thousands of an inch.
"We've been putting power out, but we're not really finished yet," Heneghan said, describing the system's initial testing that began Memorial Day weekend.
On Tuesday, the Site 1 plant was producing 3.6 megawatts, with water flowing at 80 percent of capacity. Since testing began, the plant has produced 542,000 kilowatt hours.
Heneghan said the Site 1 unit has a life expectancy of about 50 years.
"Because we can only operate seven months out of the year with irrigation water, we're hoping to get 70 years from this unit," Heneghan said. "Its going to save a far amount of money. At current rates we figure with Unit 1 running at full capacity its probably saving us between six and seven thousand dollars a day in power costs.
It was in 1909 that President William Howard Taft pledged his administration would commit to more reclamation projects throughout the American West to aid in the development of towns and agriculture.
Taft was in Montrose on September 23 of that same year to personally open the 5.8-mile-long tunnel. Irrigation was the prime motivator behind the project, but energy creation was also envisioned. A New York Times reporter attending that day wrote, "The water, after it leaves the tunnel, will have 372 feet fall, which can be used to generate electric power sufficient to light every town and every farmhouse in the Uncompahgre Valley and provide power for all kinds of commercial and industrial purposes."
At the time it probably could have, given the small population in the area, Heneghan said. Population growth and the demand for renewable energy has made the cost of the project – budgeted at $22.5 million – feasible now.
DMEA receives its wholesale electrical supply from Tri-State Generation and Transmission Assn. Heneghan believes with projected rate increases, DMEA’s hydro project could pay for itself in 10-12 years.
New state renewable energy regulations signed into law by Gov. Hickenlooper on Wednesday require co-ops like DMEA to obtain 25 percent of their power generated from renewable sources by 2020, with one percent of the renewable commitment to come from the "consumer side of the meter" with roof top solar units and other private green installations.
DMEA is currently on track to reach six percent by 2016.
Critics of the new requirements had argued that it was too much, too fast, and would hurt rural consumers and businesses.
Sections of the legislation would allow wholesale electric companies like Tri-State the option to bundle all of its renewable energy percentages from member co-ops into the 25 percent mandate.