The beauty and the challenge of renewable energy is that there is no silver-bullet resource, no one-size-fits-all portfolio, and a utility’s territory may hold more than one overlooked opportunity to add new kilowatts of clean, locally generated power. Being alert to such opportunities is how San Miguel Power Association (SMPA) built a power portfolio that includes 2.3 percent locally generated hydropower.
Right place, right time
Small hydropower development is highly dependent on location, and San Miguel is lucky that its southwestern Colorado service territory is rich in the resource. “Blessed,” in the words of Marketing and Energy Services Manager Brad Zaporski who added that there is more to the utility’s success than water. “We have existing infrastructure from the historic mining industry so the facilities can be developed with minimal environmental impact,” he said.
One of the nation’s oldest hydropower plants, the renovated Ouray micro-hydro unit generates about 4 million kWh annually. (Photo by San Miguel Power Assoc.)
In fact, commercial hydropower plants were generating electricity in the area long before the Department of Energy was created, long before Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act. The Ouray hydro plant began operating Dec. 6, 1885, making it one of the oldest in the nation. Private developer HydroWest Inc. bought and renovated the inactive plant in 1992, and today it generates about 4 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) annually for San Miguel.
The 11-kilowatt (kW) Mayflower Mill Hydro in Silverton is another history-making facility, the first small hydro project in Colorado to be permitted under the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act (HREA). Congress passed the law in 2013 to streamline the permitting process for hydro units smaller than 5 megawatts (MW). “That is going to make a lot more small projects feasible,” noted Zaporski.
Comes in all sizes
In many cases, however, the cooperative simply makes its own feasibility. At 8 MW, the Ridgway Reservoir hydro plant doesn’t quite qualify for the HREA, and it is the single largest renewable energy project in San Miguel’s service territory. It generates about 24,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) in an average water year, or enough electricity to power 2,500 homes annually, and far more than the co-op is able to purchase on its own.
San Miguel worked out an agreement with its wholesale power provider, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and plant-owner Tri-County Water. Tri-State buys the energy the plant produces between June and September, and San Miguel consumes the power. The city of Aspen, Colorado, buys the facility’s output during the other eight months of the year.
The Pandora Water Treatment Facility captures the water from Bridal Veil Falls, less than two miles above town, to generate 340 kW before sending it to the homes and businesses of Telluride. (Photo by San Miguel Power Association)
Though considerably smaller at 320 kW, the generating station at the Pandora Water Treatment Facility in Telluride scores big points for maximum use. Four high lakes above the town send water through the Bridal Veil hydro plant above town, producing about 2 million kWh annually. The next stop is the Pandora hydro unit at the treatment facility, and from there to the homes and businesses of Telluride for consumption. The water ends its journey through the city at the Telluride wastewater plant where a large solar array produces 10 percent of the plant’s electricity needs. “And all of these things happen in just three miles, largely through the use of existing infrastructure from the mining era,” said Zaporski.
San Miguel also has several micro-hydro units—those that generate less than 100 kw—in its portfolio. The 90-kW Coal Creek hydro plant just south of Ridgway was the co-op’s first micro hydro purchase in 2009, and the 22-kW Ouray Hot Springs hydro plant is one of three net-metered hydro facilities on SMPA’s system.
Raising green for green power
Focusing on small and micro-hydropower development isn’t the only creative thing about San Miguel’s approach to renewable energy, either. “We do it all on a zero-subsidy basis,” Zaporski stated proudly.
The co-op offers its members two programs that allow them to fund hydropower and other renewable projects outside of rates. Through the Green Block program, members purchase renewable energy credits (RECs) from SMPA’s existing renewable generators to offset their energy consumption. These Green Blocks, as the RECs are called, represent 100 kWh of renewable energy and cost $1 per block, per month. All SMPA members can purchase as many blocks as they wish and the cost is added to the monthly bill. Local municipalities looking to offset their energy use also purchase the RECs.
The Green Cents program is another simple and easy way for members to support community renewable energy projects. Members can choose to round up their monthly bill to the nearest dollar, with the extra pennies funding new projects. Participation costs members on average around $7 annually, and they may cancel at any time.
Opportunity keeps on knocking
In a news release about the Ridgway Dam project, Colorado Small Hydro Association President Kurt Johnson, of Ophir, said, “Only about 3 percent of the nation’s dams currently include hydropower. There is an enormous untapped opportunity to generate new clean energy using existing infrastructure.”
Zaporski agrees, noting that San Miguel has two more small hydro projects in the works. He added that the Regional Conservation Partnership Program is a good place for utilities to find funding, partners and technical assistance to develop hydropower resources in their area. “Partnership is really what makes these projects happen,” he declared.
Source: Colorado Rural Electric Association, August 2015