Hydroelectric project could produce power for Crystal River

Gunnison County on board. Plan hinged on land decision from Forest Service

Larry and Dana Darien would hate to see a good thing go to waste, especially a local source of energy. So when High Country Hydro of Glenwood Springs approached them about putting a small hydroelectric generating plant on Rapid Creek, near their Marble ranch, they were all for it.



Their plan seemed simple: divert water from Rapid Creek down an inclined shoot onto the Darien Ranch, where a small power plant would generate enough clean, renewable electricity during peak flow to power more than 100 homes in the Crystal River Valley.
“It makes sense since water runs down hill all the time,” says Larry Darien. “We might as well put it to use.”
It was 1984 when the idea for the hydroelectric generator first surfaced and there were plenty of incentives from the federal government to continue with such a project, with rebates and tax breaks that could have helped offset the cost.
But the project would have to be more than just a plan before the Dariens could take advantage of the incentives, and the tax breaks faded away in the late 1980s.
Another problem was that the ideal location for the start of the diversion shoot was nearly 2,000 feet into the national forest from the Darien Ranch.
To get there, the Dariens would need to reach an agreement with the Forest Service that would allow them long-term access to the section of Rapid Creek above their property.
But the Forest Service doesn’t always make it easy for the public to work through their processes, says Andy Wiessner, a public lands consultant with the Snowmass-based Western Land Group, Inc., which helps people work through land exchanges and is helping the Dariens with their project.
It took nearly 20 years of wading through the bureaucratic maze and personnel changes before the Dariens were ready to forfeit their dream of clean power for the Crystal River Valley.
Then in 2002, just a month after they had given up the application for water rights, the Dariens were approached by Tom Golec, a private consultant working with the local power company, Holy Cross Energy, and later Governor Bill Ritter’s Energy Office, which was looking to boost the number of small hydroelectric projects in the state, especially on the Western Slope.
“Within Holy Cross’s district, which includes Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties, so far there are probably 50 hydroelectric projects being planned,” says Golec. “Since the governor’s Energy Office took on this small hydro program, we’re identifying a lot of potential sites.”
One of those projects was on Rapid Creek near the Darien Ranch and soon Holy Cross Energy was on board to buy energy from the Dariens’ plant if it ever became operational.
Slowly, that goal of an operational power plant inched closer to reality.
A water court judge granted the Dariens a non-consumptive water right that would provide the minimum two cubic feet of water per second and as much as five cubic feet per second necessary to operate the plant.
Darien says that much water could provide anywhere between 125 and 165 kilowatts of power, enough to power as many as 150 homes.
Then on Friday June 26, the Forest Service endorsed the idea of trading a permanent right of way on the 102 acres needed to build a diversion from Rapid Creek in exchange for a small piece of land that the Dariens own at the Lily Lake trailhead that accesses the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.
Despite the Forest Service’s agreement to the trade, the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners at a regular meeting on July 7, agreed to sign a letter in support of the trade so the project can move forward.
“We probably don’t need the [BOCC endorsement], but we want everybody to be in favor of it,” says Darien.
Several years ago, as part of a senior project students from the Colorado School of Mines completed a design for the power plant and diversion that the Dariens could use if the land were secured.
With a preliminary plant design from the Colorado School of Mines and the water rights that were granted by the state, a functioning hydroelectric power plant could be as little as a year away.
Now that the land and water have been secured, Wiessner says the ranching family might be willing to start pouring money into the project that could cost as much as $500,000.
Wiessner says, “The Dariens are not wealthy and until they knew the Forest Service would give them the right of way, they couldn’t start any other part of the hydroelectric project. It will require an initial investment of between $30,000 and $50,000 and they didn’t want to risk it up front.”
The payoff would come from the possible 165 kilowatts of power that would be continuously produced by the plant at peak flow on Rapid Creek. That power would be pumped back into the Holy Cross Energy grid and fed to homes near the plant.
Holy Cross Energy is excited about this prospect of locally produced power because Marble and the Crystal River Valley are at the end of their utility line and a lot of electricity is lost in the transmission.
As a result, Marble mayor John Anthony Petrocco says the town’s residents “oftentimes pay more for insufficient and unreliable utilities.”
Because the creek’s water level would be lower in the winter and variable throughout the summer, Darien says, the payoff for the project could take as long as 20 years, which is still up to five times faster than a photovoltaic array that could produce the same amount of electricity.
That is because the electricity being produced isn’t affected by clouds and doesn’t change overnight, which also makes it more desirable to Holy Cross Energy.
“We like micro-hydro because it runs 24/7 and isn’t affected by the weather during peak production times,” says Craig Tate, Holy Cross Energy’s member service representative. “We don’t rely on that being a power load that we have to have. It’s just gravy for us, but we do like getting it.”
And, Golec says, small-scale hydroelectric plants are just as practical in the Gunnison Valley as they are in the Crystal River Valley.
“Two factors are going to determine the amount of energy that is produced: how much elevation drop and how much water. Once you have about 40 feet of drop then the economics start to kick in. Once people get past the initial cost, the plants pay for themselves fairly quickly,” he says.
“Grants and other incentives are becoming available,” Golec says. “That’s why I’ve got twice the number of projects this year than I’ve had in the three years prior. There’s more money in terms of grants to help push things along.”
Golec says people interested in learning more about small-scale hydroelectric production can visit the governor’s Energy Office website at colorado.gov/energy and easily find their way to the hydroelectric production page.
For the Dariens, who have already made an effort to get a small hydroelectric production plant moving on their property, it is nice to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Anybody that thinks its not a win-win situation is a little bit out there, if you ask me,” Darien says.

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