MONTROSE – Even when the Gunnison Tunnel was completed 100 years ago, providing additional irrigation water for the Montrose and Delta areas, residents clearly understood its potential to create electricity.
Enough electricity, noted a 1909 dispatch in the New York Times, “to light every town and every farmhouse in the Uncompahgre Valley and provide power for all kinds of commercial and industrial purposes.”
A century later, Delta-Montrose Electric Association intends to make good on part of that great promise. The co-operative announced Saturday that it will apply to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which administers the Gunnison Tunnel, to develop enough electricity to equal 5 percent of the co-op’s maximum annual demand.
As the energy landscape changes, other jurisdictions across Colorado and the West have similarly been re-examining their assets. Small hydro-projects produce far less electricity than most coal-fired power plants, or the giant dams on the Colorado River. But they can do so without generating carbon dioxide emissions and often without increasing other environmental impacts.
Colorado energy officials have come up with 100 sites that could collectively produce about 100 megawatts of electricity.
The projects, says Joani Matranga, Western Slope representative for the Governor’s Energy Office, would use primarily existing infrastructure and diversions, resulting in minimal environmental impacts. “We’re not building any new dams,” she says. “We think there is still plenty of potential to go after.”
Using a coarser filter, the federal government sees even greater potential. The Idaho National Laboratory found up to 1,800 megawatts of capacity in Colorado after eliminating inaccessible or off-limits sites such as wilderness areas.
In comparison, Colorado’s five million residents create a peak-demand for 6,000 megawatts of electricity.
Hydroelectric power already plays a major role in isolated pockets. Aspen set out decades ago to chart a path to lessen its reliance on coal-fired generation. In 1985, the city paid for installation of a hydroelectric component in Ruedi Dam, a federal installation on the Fryingpan River. When water is being released, which is not all the time, the turbines can deliver up to 4.5 megawatts.
More recently, Aspen utility officials have discussed doing something similar at Ridgway Dam in conjunction with the dam’s owners, Tri-County Water Conservancy District. “There might be some potential,” says John Hines, an Aspen utility engineer.
The City of Aspen is on track to commission a new run-of-river hydroelectric plant in Castle Creek, near the western entrance to the town – a $5.5 million plant that, when it comes on-line next year, will deliver about one megawatt of electricity. A run-of-river plant requires no dam, which would completely plug the river.
The Castle Creek installation will put Aspen’s city utility portfolio at 81 or 82 percent on renewable energy. That includes ownership in wind farms. Currently, renewables deliver 75 percent of the department’s electricity.
Ironically, Aspen’s electricity originally came from the same site. A hydroelectric plant, somewhat large than what is being built, began production in 1993, but was decommissioned in 1958.
The larger story of power generation has been one of sharply increasing demand that is met by centralized coal-fired generation. A white paper issued by Holy Cross Energy, an electrical cooperative serving the Vail, Glenwood Springs and Aspen areas, says that the Untied States used 13 times more electricity than it had at the end of World War II. Population growth, increased economic activity and a tendency to use electricity for greater comforts and amusements, such as flat-screen TVs, help to account for the increase.
In the West, a portion of this increasing demand was met with new dams, such as on the Gunnison River, and in Utah at Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon. Even today, 13 percent of electricity in the portfolio of Tri-State Generation and transmission, the primary power provider for San Miguel, Delta-Montrose and 42 other electrical cooperatives in the Rocky Mountain States, comes from hydro.
As utilities increasingly looked to coal, because of how much electricity it can provide at a low cost, the coal-fired plants got ever larger. With completion of a third unit this year, the Commanche power plant complex at Pueblo will have 1,410 megawatts.
The effort to harness the irrigation canal east of Montrose is part of a broad effort to reverse this decades-old trend toward centralized generation of electricity using fossil fuels.
Delta-Montrose Electric Assn. officials say that local power generation produces local jobs, and will insulate electrical customers from rising costs for coal. Those costs will almost certainly rise even more if the federal government adopts a cap-and-trade regime on carbon dioxide emissions, as proposed in the Waxman-Markey bill.
“If this project moves forward through the federal permitting process – and I am confident it will – DMEA’s membership will benefit in many ways, “ said DMEA General Manager Dan McClendon.
“Money we would have otherwise exported out of our community for wholesale electricity will be retained in our own community,” he said. He went on to explain that even without grants or other financial assistance, the cost – about $25 million to $30 million – will deliver electricity comparable to the existing wholesale rate.
The wholesale rate for electricity, however, will likely rise as the cost of coal increases. The power from the hydroelectric project will not.
McClendon also points out that the hydroelectric power, because it has no carbon emissions, will be immune to cost increases if the federal government adopts cap-and-trade legislation that basically puts a price on pollution.
Unlike some proposals of the past, DMEA has no plans to harness the full power of the falling water. Water from the Gunnison drops 372 feet in as series of churning, roiling steps as the irrigation ditch, called the South Canal, winds around the dun-colored adobe hills east of Montrose. DMEA plans to yoke power from just 120 feet in that fall.
For all the potential, hydropower has been somewhat slow to develop. One cause, says Doug Hal, program manager for Idaho National Laboratory's water management program, has been uncertainty of the federal government’s production tax credit. Typically such credits have been extended only a year at a time. Now, the credit has been extended by five years, giving hydro developers certainty of the credit when they complete their projects, he says.
Hydro also faces a more difficult regulatory hurdle than some other forms of renewable energy; Vail Resorts, for example, a year ago began examining the potential for creating a small hydroelectric project on Mill Creek, which flows from its marquee ski area, Vail Mountain.
Luke Cartin, the environmental coordinator, is high on the technology. The technology has been working well for more than a century – since 1891, in fact, when Telluride banker and mine owner L.L. Nunn facilitated the world’s first commercial high-voltage transmission of alternating current from the Ames Power Plant.
But for even a small amount of power, Cartin points out, Vail will have to get permission from a large number of agencies, both state and federal. At the very least, he says, that slows the process.
Matranga, from the state’s energy office, says that the regulatory process for even small hydro projects is much more complicated than for some other renewable energy sources, including wind and solar. All hydro projects, even small ones, must get approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The Governor’s Energy Office, she said, hopes to help streamline a process that will lower the hurdle, at least for those project that will not cause new disturbances in streams.
She also reports a growing number of revenue sources for hydro projects, including development assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an expanding pot of federal funds in the last three years, and also federal stimulus funds.
Matranga also reports interest from several rural electrical co-ops in developing hydro sources, among them San Miguel Electric and Holy Cross Energy. Boulder and Denver already have some hydro on their system, and are looking to expand, she reported.
Some small towns – including Hotchkiss and Cortez – have installed small hydro components into their existing water delivery systems, to harness the power of falling water. Aspen does the same, and Hines, that city’s utility engineer, points out that even towns in the Midwest with water towers could tap the power of falling water.
Elsewhere in southwestern Colorado, Eric Jacobson has refurbished several small hydro-power plants, such as a 500-kilowatt plant at Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride and a 150-kilowatt plant in Ouray. A variety of other small hydro projects are also scattered across mountainous areas of Colorado.