Large scale hydropower, which provides about 7 percent of our country's electricity, always seems to have a skeptical asterisk over the words "green" and "renewable."
It doesn't help that founding builders of "big hydro" were so excited to erect each sweeping colossus of a dam, they'd probably answer salmon migration and ecosystem concerns with, "And your point is...?"
In truth, big hydro has been persistent and creative about addressing its environmental problems (public pressure helping the cause). Puget Sound Energy won an award for a giant net that captures young Sockeye salmon behind the Baker Lake dam so they can be trucked to the river below. I find that strangely moving.
But it's in looking at smaller systems that hydro-benefits eclipse all hydro-doubts. In my investigation of micro, mini and small (actual terms) hydro power, I found an especially cool system. It doesn't require any damming or disruption, because the power source is from water pressure in municipal (city) pipelines.
Municipal water travels from source back to source via treatment center, city, and wastewater treatment facility. At any point in this journey, especially if there's any downhill motion involved, you can install a turbine and use that water to create hydro power.
And who might have jumped on this with the speed of a triathlete in Lycra shorts on a titanium framed racing bike? Why yes, it's Boulder, Colorado.
They built five modern plants from 1985 to 2003. Last year they generated $2 million in revenue from 43.7 million kilowatt hours of electricity. They have a 20.7 megawatt capacity but generates as little as one megawatt in the winter (still an enormous amount). Water flow from the Rockies, as well as human demand, fluctuates from season to season. Obviously this is part of Boulder's energy equation, not the whole deal. As Water Resources Coordinator Carol Ellinghouse says, "We're not making a designer river."
But they are making money. Free market economists can note that all hydro power costs within this agency have been justified, including installation. The revenue improves water quality and lowers the price. When the loans are paid off, that will be money flowing from the community into the community, forevermore.
In finding similar projects, many arrows point to a company founded in 2003, Rentricity, out of downtown Manhattan. Co-founder and President Frank Zammataro says Boulder was definitely a model. Recently they did a 30 kW system on the Beaver Run reservoir outside Pittsburgh. The generated power is used for the water system's pump house, saving $40,000 a year. Zammataro points out that 3 percent of our country's electricity goes to power the municipal water cycle, so one use of municipal water hydro power could be elegantly close at hand.
Here's a big advantage: hydro power is relatively old-fashioned in its simplicity. It's presently monitored by computer and turbines are always re-designed for better efficiency, but at some point, you just need a lot of big clunky stuff that does what it's supposed to do. No nano-thin wires and chemical combinations. Boulder has one turbine from 1936 that's still in operation.
Even the majority of the costs are in the complex engineering that integrates the hydro power into the water and electrical systems. Think old world Ayn Rand brainy-brawny protagonists.
And when you're only adding on to and harnessing power from existing city systems, it's even old-fashioned common sense.
But there is a complicated wrinkle. Zammataro politely mentioned that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission required an old school fish and wildlife study for their project. He hopes we'll urge FERC to update its statutes to eliminate unnecessary requirements. Colorado already has a "memorandum of understanding" that fast tracks its growing number of municipal -meaning little or no fish poop, let alone fish -- hydro projects. Even the out-in-nature projects' environmental impact study requirements beg the question, are these regulations coming from the rulebook for the Hoover dam?
The time sensitivity of FERC's decisions rests in our present economy. Federal and state coffers often subsidize these win-win but long-term projects. Beaver Run's $323,000 for their project came from Pennsylvania DEP's Energy Harvest Grant. Funds could run out just as we're revving up.
There's something about smaller scale hydro power that gets the imagination going. Everyone I spoke to in my town ran with the idea, inspired, perhaps, by the fact that energy could be one of the best things we could "buy local." My neighbor Alan said it could re-invigorate the Catskills, and our town supervisor mentioned a number of old engineered rivers that could power us in the 21st century. At the historical society, Kendall Ingenito told me our town's manufactured waterfall, which hydro-powered the production of bullets and cannons for two wars, is not only there, it still works! In this age of environmental and economic anxiety, it's exciting to see so many big (and small) wheels turning.