Colo. ag officials hope legislative changes bring more small-scale hydropower to irrigation ditches
June 12, 2014
In the past, an agricultural producer who wanted to install a small hydropower project on his irrigation ditch to help generate energy for his own operation would have to go through the same lengthy and costly permitting process as, say, the developers of the Hoover Dam.
Thanks to recent changes in federal and state regulations, the process of getting permission to install a small hydro project has been drastically streamlined, and state and industry organizations in Colorado hope that means more members of the agricultural industry will be able to reap the benefits of hydropower.
"(Regulatory reform) has the effect of lowering costs and time delays associated with small hydro, so that's a big bonus," said Kurt Johnson, president of the Colorado Small Hydro Association and principal of Telluride Energy.
Last year, U.S. Congress passed legislation that essentially allows small projects, anything that produces less than 5 megawatts of power, that are already in some sort of ditch, drain or pipe to bypass the federal permitting process.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on May 31 signed a bill that essentially eliminates any possible holdups in the permitting process at the state level.
In a series of workshops, Johnson's group has teamed up with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, American Rivers and other environmental and energy groups to present information on small hydro products to community.
The most recent meeting took place in Glenwood Spring on May 29.
Eric Lane, director for the Colorado Department of Agriculture's Conservation Services Division, said small hydro is a win for agriculture and for the environment, an idea showcased in the diversity of groups that support it.
"It's always a good thing when you find yourself with odd bedfellows," Lane said. "You know you're doing something right."
Lane said his office is working to inform producers about the regulatory changes that have made hydro projects much less time-consuming and costly. He said for the first time, his division has an employee dedicated solely to helping producers analyze whether or not a hydro project is feasible on their land and how to go about starting a project that works for each individual operation.
"What we aim to do with regard to small hydro is help develop clearer processes for farmers and ranchers and irrigation companies to go through in order to take a project from conception to completion," Lane said.
Because the permitting process for small hydro has traditionally been foreboding, Lane said many producers have given up on that idea.
Now, he's hoping to see more interest.
Lynn Fagerberg, of Fagerberg Produce near Eaton, Colo., said he hasn't looked into small hydro as an option on his farm just yet, in part because it may not be feasible with water only flowing in his area a few months out of the year.
Still, he said the potential benefits make it work considering.
Mike Hungenberg, whose family grows produce near Greeley, echoed Fagerberg's thoughts on small hydro. He said with either too much water flooding in Weld County or too little coming down the pipes, it's hard to imagine that he'd have a feasible project.
Even so, its an option worth considering.
On top of the financial savings that come from generating their own power, producers who install projects may receive grants or may get financial help through the USDA's National Resources Conservation Service's Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Lane said with government grants and reimbursements, most projects would likely be paid off in four to six years.
"If you can get the government to pay for 50, 75 percent of your project, that's a screaming deal," Johnson said.
As Lane explained, in order for a hydro project to be feasible, there must be either a enough water volume, the water must be flowing at a high enough speed, or both.
In locations with steep drops in elevation, less volume is necessary, and in areas with more volume, slighter changes in elevation will do.
At this point, Lane said his office is tasked with helping producers figure out if their water has hydropower potential.
"Right now there's plenty of producers who think, 'I've got water flowing. There must be a way to tap into that.' What we want to do is help them determine if they have actual potential."
According to a survey conducted by the CDA on small hydropower, the two types of hydropower that will be most useful to farmers and ranchers are electric and mechanical. Water can be used generate electricity that can power equipment, barns and farmhouses, or it can be used to mechanically power specific pieces of equipment.
Lane said for farmers and ranchers with remote fields, hydromechanical projects may be more useful, since they don't require connections to the power grid. If operations are already close to electrical grids, then hydroelectric projects may be more beneficial.
Either way, Lane said his office hopes to help producers determine which projects are right for their properties.
"Power is a significant part of the input cost for any producer, so if we can help them through the development of small hydro, reduce those costs, then that makes their business much more profitable," Lane said.
The CDA is working with producers to develop small hydro projects that can serve as guiding examples for others who go through the project.
As an existing example, Lane said he often points to the small hydro project developed on George Wenschhof's meeker property. The hydroelectric project initially cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Lane said, but with more than half of that cost covered by grants and reimbursements, that project is already helping Wenschhof save on energy bills.
"It was worth making that more substantial investment up front because the payoff would be more substantial, as well," Lane said of the Wenschhof project.
According to the Colorado Energy Office, that project was one of the first to successfully go through the streamlined federal process, with approval given within two months.
Lane said while it's a new endeavor, the effort to help producers navigate the world of small hydro has been an interagency one. He said his office is working with the state energy office and with local representatives of the National Resources Conservation Service to make sure the most up-to-date information is available.
He said producers who are interested in looking into small hydro may contact his office and may access the recent analysis on the CDA website. Producers may also contact their local NRCS officers.
Lane said with energy bills going nowhere but up, he hopes members of the agriculture industry will look into whether small hydro could help their operations.
"This is all going uphill, so this is a good to get involved," Lane said. ❖