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Small Hydropower: Renewable Energy The New Senate Could Get Behind

Emily Carpeaux - Inside Energy

In a tiny shack nestled in the rugged peaks of Southwestern Colorado, you can hear the sound of hydropower’s future.

It’s not construction crews, building some behemoth new dam. It’s a generator no bigger than a wheelbarrow, pulling in water from a mountain stream, making enough power for about two hot water heaters.

And fans of this little generator say it helped change the course of hydro history.

“C’mon, really, this little tiny thing ….. is causing all of this?"

That’s Beverly Rich, chairman of the San Juan County Historical Society.

Her society has been taking care of this historic mill site near the town of Silverton for about 15 years.

Along with the building came the mill’s water source, a pipeline the mill workers used to process precious metals like gold and silver.

“At that time, we kept thinking gee, there really ought to be a way that we can use that water," Rich said.

Credit Dan Boyce - Inside Energy
San Juan County Historical Society Chair Beverly Rich stands in front of the shed containing her group's small hydropower generator.

They started walking through the federal licensing process required to install a power generator.

According to Rich, they  “had no idea really how onerous it is for really tiny tiny little projects."

Forcing them to jump through the same hoops you’d have to to build another Hoover dam.

Not exaggerating.

That was the case for a lot of projects trying to generate electricity from water.

That is, until August of 2013.

Advocates of small hydropower projects worked up a pair of bills for Congress, and the mill project in Silverton was a poster child.

Here’s testimony from Hydropower consultant Kurt Johnson,

“Requiring this level of detailed regulations, for non-controversial, small projects on existing conduits does not make any sense.”

This legislation streamlined the licensing process for small hydropower projects, cutting it down from years to as little as 60 days.

Beverly Rich says the legislation didn’t just pass. “Incredibly enough, in this horrible time of gridlock, it passed unanimously.”


The bills hit a rare bi-partisan sweet spot.

For lawmakers on the right, the legislation shrinks federal bureaucracy. And on the left, it means a win for renewable energy, without building new dams on Americas rivers. Fans of small hydropower are actually happy with congress right now. Still, they are looking for more.

Kurt Johnson, the hydro consultant who testified at the hearing, he says the bills are like a kitchen knife gently cutting the government’s red tape.

“We need another round of legislation, perhaps to get a machete and further clear out some of those regulatory barriers.”

He says It shouldn’t just be a matter of reducing the licensing process.

"If the projects are tiny and non-controversial, why is the federal government involved at all?”

Removing all federal oversight may be a tall order even for this new Republican-controlled Congress.

But, hydropower legislation will likely make a re-appearance. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski is set to be the new Chair of the Senate Energy Committee.

She’s on record calling hydropower an under-developed resource, saying more hydro could support economic growth and create jobs. And as far as the country’s energy needs, there is vast potential.

Kurt Johnson is looking over a railing at a surging jet of water, launching at least 50 feet into North St. Vrain Creek at the base of Button Rock Dam in Northern Colorado.

“This is a great example of an enormous amount of mechanical energy which is currently being completely wasted,” Johnson says.

There’s no generator hooked up to this huge water spout, if there was it could power 500 homes.

If generators were put on all of this country’s already-existing non-powered dams, like Button Rock, “that would create enough power for about 4 million American homes," according to Johnson.

4 million.

Or about as much energy as from a dozen large coal fired power plants.

For Inside Energy, I’m Dan Boyce.

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