Experts say that in order to reach climate goals we need to move away from fossil fuels and get our energy from renewable sources. While most assume that will mean more wind and solar, there’s a clean and environmentally sound way to generate electricity that’s been hiding in plain sight but only recently became affordable to harness. For H2O Radio, Frani Halperin reports.
The Soldier Canyon filtration plant in Fort Collins, Colorado, takes water from Horsetooth Reservoir. Like many treatment facilities in the Rocky Mountain region, the utility uses water that falls from a higher elevation—and as the water drops, it packs a lot of energy.
In the past, according to Chris Matkins, the general manager of the Fort Collins-Loveland Water District, they’ve used pressure reduction valves to dissipate that energy because it would be too much for the pipes to handle. But, ironically, it takes energy to get rid of energy—and for Matkins that was a lose-lose. So this past summer the Soldier Canyon plant installed something called a hydro turbine in the pipe that takes water from the reservoir.
Climbing down a ten-foot ladder into a concrete vault just east of the reservoir to see—and hear—the hydro turbine, it sounds like a cross between a jet airplane engine and waterfall. But that loud hum is the sound of electricity being generated without any fossil fuels.
What the plant is doing now is capturing that potential energy and instead of wasting it, turning a turbine to generate electricity.
How much electricity? Enough to treat 50 million gallons a day and run the entire plant.
Hydro turbines aren’t new. They’ve been around since the beginning of the twentieth century, and Matkins says his district had been talking about them for decades. But they didn’t install one because permitting them with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) took years and the application was expensive. So they passed—that is, until last summer.
Matkins explains that the potential of installing hydro turbines was recognized, but a change in federal regulations really opened up the conversation, adding, “Removing the bureaucratic tape that went with standing a system like this up in the past made it palatable.”
The bureaucratic tape got untangled in 2013, and Kurt Johnson of Telluride Energy and president of the Western Small Hydro Association says it was a game-changing year for small hydropower.
In that year, U.S. Representatives Diana Degette, Democrat of Colorado, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republican of Washington, got the Congress to pass the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act. The bill said that if water is already being diverted from an existing natural waterway, and if the proposed hydropower project is less than 5 megawatts in totally generating capacity, and if it’s being built on non-federal property, then it can be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in as quickly as 60 days.
That’s a far cry from the 7-10 years it used to take to permit a small hydro project—especially recognizing that they don’t require any new dams or divert any water. And Congress seems to like small hydropower projects. In October it passed the Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, which includes a provision to further ease federal permitting requirements for installations of up to 40 megawatts.
Johnson says the potential around the country is huge. "Think about the existing water infrastructure we have in the United States. There are 50,000 water treatment plants and there are about 15,000 wastewater treatment plants. In every case there is water flowing through these existing pipes already."
He notes that for many utilities the cost of electricity is a significant part of operations. So to possess a previously untapped resource and use it to generate local, clean, on-site renewable energy with zero environmental impact not only saves money but also gets the country closer to a lower carbon future. Chris Matkins says his customers in Fort Collins have made clear they want conservation and reduced carbon footprints. Before Soldier Canyon installed the hydro turbine to run the plant, they bought energy from the electric utility, which meant burning coal.
Matkins adds, “We might be the first to the table, but I think you’re going to see more of this.” From the number of water operators that have come out to tour the Soldier Canyon facility, it appears utilities are energized to do the same.