TELLURIDE – The Telluride region has long sustained a rich history in the development of hydropower, boasting the first power plant in the world to generate, transmit, and sell alternating current electricity for commercial purposes, which was, in fact, built just south of Telluride on the San Miguel River, at the Ames Hydroelectric Plant, in 1891.
The region’s reputation as a proving-ground for hydroelectricity continues, with a handful of “micro-hydro” projects currently being explored locally. At the forefront of this recent green energy movement is Kurt Johnson, owner of local hydropower development firm Telluride Energy.
According to Johnson, the national hydroelectricity industry is on the brink of a new phase of innovation thanks to a more hospitable legislative environment, both on the national as well as the state and local government level.
“There is a huge amount of renewed interest in hydropower, and that hasn’t been the case in a long time,” he says, explaining that a recent study commissioned by the National Hydropower Association estimates that about 60,000 megawatts of new hydropower capacity could be developed in the U.S. (To put that in perspective, consider that existing hydropower plants generate about 100 MW, or about 9 percent of the country’s total energy output.) The Colorado Governor’s Energy Office estimates, furthermore, that Colorado has several hundred attractive sites with a combined potential generating capacity of more than 1,400 MW (with one megawatt of small hydro potentially supplying power equivalent to the electricity needs of 500 to 750 homes).
Many of these new small hydro installations would take advantage of existing facilities, including dams, irrigation canals, and pipelines, to generate clean energy with minimal environmental impact, Johnson says.
Some of these hydro-sites exist right here in southwest Colorado, and Johnson sees great potential for the region to blaze a trail into an increasingly carbon-neutral future. Municipalities like Ouray have already leaped to the forefront of the hydropower movement, with its newly constructed 22 kW micro-hydro system that will offset electricity consumption of Ouray Hot Springs Pool.
Johnson managed the Ouray project, and is also helping to spearhead other micro-hydro projects in Silverton, Ophir, Mountain Village, and at the Ridgway Reservoir, in addition to a handful of other micro-hydro projects currently in the works across the state.
The current political climate is conducive for these kinds of projects, Johnson explains, thanks to recent legislation that has proved to be a boon for renewable energy providers.
Nearly 30 states now maintain Renewable Portfolios Standards, dictating that utility companies are required to get a certain amount of their energy from renewable sources. Last March, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter signed a bill increasing the state’s RPS, and this August the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office announced a Memorandum of Understanding between the GEO and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to streamline and simplify the authorization of small scale hydropower projects – helping to make Colorado a proving ground for responsible development of small hydropower projects.
“All of the macro trends are lining up to support the hydro industry,” says Johnson, pointing to the “looming” issue of climate change and how it has taken the spotlight in the national and international political conversation. “We have some really progressive and effective leaders in the state government taking an active interest in supporting small hydro,” Johnson says.
“Here in southwest Colorado is where the rubber meets the road.”
Johnson knows well that an accommodating political climate is important to the success of burgeoning green energy industries. He worked on Capitol Hill for many years, for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he founded and spent many years managing the Green Power Partnership, the EPA’s renewable energy program. He has worked as a renewable energy specialist for the California Public Utilities Commission as well, where he developed a performance-based incentive structure for the California Solar Initiative.
Johnson founded Telluride Energy in 2008, in an effort to help pave the way for green energy development, specifically micro-hydro, in this part of the country. Telluride Energy specializes in providing start-to-finish management of micro-hydro projects, including site assessments, grant writing, feasibility assessments, permitting, utility company negotiations, and construction management. The company is currently working on a dozen small hydro projects across Western Colorado, ranging in size from 5 kilowatts to 5 megawatts.
“I’m essentially leveraging this newfound interest in hydropower, as well as federal and state [financial] support that has recently become available, to help these hydro projects become realities,” he explains.
For more information on Telluride Energy and its current micro-hydro projects, visit www.tellurideenergy.com