Looking to rivers for sustainable energy

“It’s worth our attention”

There is an abundant source of energy in the Gunnison Valley that is quite literally running away downstream—hydropower.




Thanks to new technology that allows hydropower generation on a smaller scale and state funding schemes available to study and build hydropower projects, local water officials are beginning to investigate if the Gunnison Valley has the potential to “tap” into this liquid energy.
“It’s worth our attention to see if we’ve got any of this available,” says Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) board member Steve Schechter. “It’s homegrown energy… The technology is here to do this sort of thing.”
UGRWCD board member Bill Nesbitt concurs, saying, “With all this water around us it sure would make some sense.” Nesbitt says hydropower is one of the most efficient means of alternative energy generation.
In early August, Schechter and Nesbitt attended a hydropower workshop sponsored by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority to learn more about the possibilities of new hydropower technology.
This week, water officials took a tour of local waterways and diversion structures with representatives from a large hydropower firm in Denver, TCB Aecom, to see where the potential exists for hydropower locally.
“They’re going to look at a bunch of different places to see what we can do for small hydro,” Schechter says.
Based on the outcome of the tour, held on September 16 and 17, local entities may choose to do a more comprehensive feasibility study for specific hydropower projects.
The Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority is offering grant money to conduct these feasibility studies, but the deadline to apply, October 18, is fast approaching.
Water officials are not looking into large dam structures like the one holding back Blue Mesa Reservoir, which generates electricity for the Western Area Power Administration. Nesbitt says the projects being considered are much smaller, like hydropower generators that are completely submerged and resemble weather vanes that operate along with the flow of the river. “You don’t even see them,” he says.
“You can actually drop these turbines into the river and anchor them, and you can still raft over them and they don’t impact fish. There’s all sorts of new technologies out there,” Schechter says.
There is also money available to study and implement hydropower projects. UGRWCD manager Frank Kugel says the Colorado Water Resources and Development Authority (CWRDA) can provide up to $15,000 in grant funding for feasibility studies. Once a project is determined feasible, he says, the CWRDA provides low interest loans up to $2 million to construct hydropower generators. Kugel says after this week’s tour local officials may know whether it is worth pursuing that kind of funding.
Schechter says the Delta Montrose Electric Association and Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Group are investigating similar possibilities along the lower Gunnison River and Uncompahgre Canal.
Locally, Nesbitt and Schechter say some of the larger waterways, like the Taylor River and Gunnison River, would seem like good places to implement hydropower, due to their consistent flows and high volumes, but there are some big hurdles.
First, there’s power transmission. “The problem is, it’s so hard to get the power out of there,” Schechter says. Any new hydropower generator would require transmission lines to connect it to the local grid. Building those lines could harm the environment, or the aesthetics of the area that brings in tourism.
“Is the community prepared to do overhead (lines)? That’s a big question,” Nesbitt says. He says underground lines would protect aesthetics, but would be much more costly to implement.
Nesbitt says it could also be a challenge convincing those who own the water rights to accept hydropower projects. And there could be other hurdles further down the track. “We may run into some issues we just don’t know about yet,” Nesbitt says. He adds that there is no intent to force such hydropower generators into existence, but water officials simply want to investigate where this type of electricity generation might be possible.
Nesbitt says hydropower generation in much smaller waterways would likely be easier to implement. He says in Gunnison, the water that exits the three large water tanks above the city could be tapped into for power generation. And while that small amount of water may not generate much electricity, it just might be enough to offset the cost of pumping the water up to the tanks in the first place.
Nesbitt says the city of Gunnison uses 12 megawatts of electricity during peak times in the winter. Even if there were a possibility to generate only a handful of kilowatts through hydropower, Nesbitt says, “Every little bit helps.”
Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which provides local power that is distributed by Gunnison County Electric Association, gets about 12 percent of its energy through hydroelectric generation by the Western Area Power Administration (Blue Mesa), according to the company’s website. GCEA itself is not involved in hydroelectric power generation.
In 2004, the Office of Resource Efficiency conducted a hydropower feasibility study on a portion of Coal Creek above the town of Crested Butte. According to ORE’s 2004 annual report, the water flow through the area in question was insufficient to power a micro-hydroelectric turbine efficiently.

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