Water Powers Area Properties
By Suzie Romig
Northwestern Colorado rancher and homeowner George Wenschhof is more than happy to get away from an annual electric bill of $10,000. During dryer years, that amount could reach $12,000 from increased irrigation pumping.
These days, Wenschhof lets the power of water create energy for his ranch. At the same time, he is conserving water by moving to a center-pivot sprinkler irrigation system for a large section of his land instead of water-intensive flood irrigation.
“My goal with my system is that we don’t have an electric bill and are able to irrigate like we want,” said Wenschhof, who lives near Meeker.
The small hydropower system for his cattle ranch, home and outbuildings can produce 23 kilowatts of electric power by tapping into the force of falling water in his irrigation system. When the water is running from late April to early November, he puts excess energy into the electrical grid via White River Electric Association. He earns energy credits through an escrow account, and the account is settled at the end of the fiscal year.
Wenschhof said the project helps improve his land with little impact on the environment while helping him make a living in the tough job of cattle ranching.
“The system works well for somebody who can generate the amount of power they need to use and if their electric bills are high enough,” Wenschhof said. He calculates his hydropower investment will pay back in less than eight years, and that is without considering additional assistance through federal tax credits.
The system was completed in November 2011 with permitting help through a pilot project between the Colorado Energy Office and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that was designed to streamline and simplify the cumbersome federal permitting process.
“The pilot program resulted in permits for projects owned by everyone from small towns to ranchers to irrigation districts,” noted Tom Hunt, energy office policy programs manager.
Faster processing for small hydro should now become the norm across the state and country following the passage in early August of the federal Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013 aimed at boosting development. The FERC released new, simpler permitting processes in early September. Changes should assist entities ranging from ranchers to larger regional projects.
“We’re excited for this to open up even more small hydro in Routt County and the rest of Colorado,” Hunt said.
As of May, hydropower represented 4.4 percent of Colorado electricity generation from about sixty-five hydropower facilities including the local Stagecoach Dam and Hydroelectric Plant, Hunt noted.
The less complicated permitting could save thousands of dollars in engineering and consulting fees, said Kurt Johnson, president of the nonprofit Colorado Small Hydro Association. For example, permitting costs for the Meeker ranch site could have been $50,000 for a project that cost about $90,000 after federal grants.
“There are many potential conduit projects that could benefit from the new law,” Johnson said. Likely project types include irrigation pipelines, canal drops, existing outlets on dams, and pressure-reduction valve replacements such as is common for municipal water systems.
Another form of hydropower provides a strong option for the region. Two south Routt County cattle and hay ranchers recently installed hydro-mechanical systems where existing irrigation water powers sprinkler systems. Conventional center-pivot irrigation systems typically run on diesel or electricity.
The owners of Bear River Ranch in south Routt installed a center-pivot system that ran successfully during the 2012 watering season. Gravity pressure powers a hydraulic pump for the gradually rotating sprinklers. The owners report the project increased crop yield while using less water than with flood irrigation. The water-powered turbine portion of the project cost $13,000, and the NRCS contributed $6,000.
The second hydro-mechanical system in south Routt utilizes 336 feet of elevation drop from a higher part of the property. The water pressure will power four pivot sprinklers to irrigate hay fields.
In the Meeker area, two new hydro-mechanical projects are in the design phase, according to Ed Brannan with B&B Irrigation in Maybell. Hydro-mechanical systems do not produce electricity, so they are less expensive to install and do not require FERC oversight.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency with regional offices, can provide assistance on hydropower projects, said Vance Fulton, NRCS engineering technician in Steamboat Springs. The service advocates for hydropower irrigation because it conserves water compared to the common regional practice of flood irrigation. Fulton said irrigation via a center-pivot system can be eighty-five percent efficient in water used by plants compared to only twenty percent efficient with flood irrigation.
“Hydropower can be viable for someone with the right situation,” Fulton said. “Funding may be available for ranches hoping to set up a system to power a sprinkler.”
Engineers say landowners may be good candidates to install hydropower if they have an elevation drop in the water channel and an existing water right. The more water available, the less elevation drop needed. The more elevation drop, the less water required to make the system work. As with other renewable energy sources, hydro is site specific.
Hydropower can work for guest ranches and larger rural properties. Vagabond Ranch in northwest Grand County installed a hydropower system to displace propane use on the 108-acre backcountry hut operation. A federal grant helped owner Josh Weinstein cover about thirty percent of the project costs.
Weinstein said he has so far installed two small PowerSpout turbines to produce electricity year-round using an underground pipe from a pond outflow. The system helps to supplement solar power on the property.
“It was our best renewable energy option,” Weinstein said. “We are saving money on replacing generators, running generators less and using less on propane. If someone has a sense that they have a good hydro application, it’s worth investigating. If you have year-round flow and a lot of drop, you’ve got a good potential.”
Wenschhof agreed: “I would highly recommend it for anybody who wants to reduce their electric bill in the ranching business.”
A good first step for property owners and agricultural producers interested in hydropower is to review the online Colorado Small Hydropower Handbook completed this summer through the Colorado Energy Office.
SMALL HYDROPOWER RESOURCES
Colorado Small Hydropower Handbook is a comprehensive guide found at www.colorado.gov/energy under the Resources tab.
Colorado Small Hydro Association, www.smallhydro.co, is a nonprofit industry association offering information.
Colorado Energy Office provides a resource on the state government level. Contact: Tom Hunt, Tom.Hunt@state.co.us, 303-866-2594
Natural Resources Conservation Service, www.nrcs.usda.gov, provides technical and financial assistance to help agricultural producers and those who care for land. Contact: Vance Fulton, 970-879-3225 ext. 106, Vance.Fulton@co.usda.gov
Applegate Group, www.ApplegateGroup.com, with offices in Glenwood Springs, Salida and Denver, has been offering water resources consulting since 1985. Contact: 970-945-9686
Telluride Energy, www.tellurideenergy.com, provides small hydro consulting and project development services including free preliminary site assessments. Contact: 970-729-5051, firstname.lastname@example.org
Community Hydropower Consulting, located in Fort Collins. Owner and engineer Richard Smart has 40 years of hydropower experience. Contact: 970-221-4474, Richard@communityhydro.com
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission offers small/low impact hydropower information at www.ferc.gov/industries/hydropower.asp. Revised small hydro permit application forms were posted in September.