By Kylee Coleman
Electricity generated from hydropower tells an interesting story about today’s energy trends that’s deeper than just water flowing over a dam.
It’s a story about a renewable resource that once generated nearly a third of the nation’s electricity — a share that has declined dramatically over the decades with the rise of nuclear power, natural gas, wind and solar.
Although hydropower is less a part of our energy picture than it used to be, it’s still an important part of today’s energy mix. Hydropower projects from Tri-State G&T and Western Area Power Administration, small hydro projects and even micro-hydro projects all work together to help power homes, farms, ranches and businesses in Colorado.
Hydropower works by converting falling water into energy. Historically, Colorado has seen this played out in different applications, such as Crystal Mill, which used a horizontal water turbine to power an air compressor for miners operating machinery and tools in nearby silver mines in the late 1800s. It has also come in the form of large dams built on a river both for flood control as well as to channel the water through large turbines that generate electricity.
According to the United States Department of Energy, hydropower generates roughly 7% of the nation’s electricity — and all but two states receive at least some of their electricity from hydropower.
HYDROPOWER & THE ENVIRONMENT
While flowing water might seem to be an endless energy source, hydropower has a complicated relationship with the environment.
Some question hydro’s claims as a provider of clean energy since the larger projects involve building a huge dam that floods a river valley to create a reservoir. But the Environmental Protection Agency classifies hydro as a renewable resource, and the DOE lists hydroelectricity as the source of 31% of the nation’s renewable electricity.
Recent weather patterns also seem to be redefining what renewable energy means. Hydroelectric generation fell 9% during 2021 because of drought conditions across the country and the West.
HYDRO IS COST-EFFECTIVE
Still, hydro has a lot going for it. It’s one of the cheapest forms of energy, especially after the initial investment costs. Its day-to-day operations don’t produce greenhouse gases. Utility grid operators appreciate its flexibility as a source of electricity that can be turned on and off relatively easily, especially compared with fuels like coal, nuclear, solar and wind.
Those assets have raised interest in adding new hydro projects. Nearly $8 billion has been invested over the past 15 years to add enough capacity to power 1 million homes. While many hydro dams have been around a long time and are ready to be retired, new projects are planned, including modernizing older hydro facilities. DOE reports proposed projects that could generate enough electricity to power yet another 1 million homes.
In addition to upgrading existing sites, the DOE projects that at least 200 “non-powered dams” could have generators added. Out of about 90,000 dams in the U.S., only about 2,200 generate electric power.
Those efforts will be getting a boost from the federal infrastructure law passed in 2021. That measure includes more than $2 billion in hydropower incentives for river restoration and dam rehabilitation.
SMALL HYDRO OFFERS BIG OUTCOMES
“Small hydro” is developed on a scale meant for local communities and industries and mostly contributes to a regional grid. Small hydro projects are defined by the DOE as plants that generate between 100 kilowatts and 10 megawatts.
In Colorado, small hydro can have a large effect on powering communities. Gunnison-based electric co-op GCEA has been working in partnership with the Uncompaghre Valley Water Users Association to install a 500 kW small hydro project at the base of Taylor Park Dam.
Taylor River Hydro, LLC has been pursued as an opportunity to provide cost-effective, locally-generated, carbon-free electricity from an existing resource (the Taylor Park Dam) to the co-op’s consumer-members. “All energy produced at the new hydroelectric facility will be consumed by GCEA members within the co-op’s distribution system,” GCEA Strategy Execution Specialist Matt Feier said.
Taylor River Hydro is designed to operate at or near the 500kW nameplate capacity 24 hours every day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year (minus downtimes for potential repairs and maintenance). Specific fluctuations in power production will be determined by the height of the reservoir at any given time.
“The facility should generate 3,812,733 kWh of electricity per year, on average,” Feier noted. “This is enough energy to power approximately 475 average GCEA-served homes each year.”
Feier explained that the Taylor Park Dam and Taylor Park Reservoir were originally constructed in 1937 for the purposes of agricultural water storage and flood control. The Taylor Park Dam has never incorporated a hydroelectric generation facility, though the dam structure was originally designed to accommodate one.
The dam is owned by the United States Bureau of Reclamation and is operated by the Uncompaghre Valley Water Users Association. UVWUA retains first-fill water rights to water within the Taylor Park Reservoir, and GCEA maintains and operates the electric distribution system that serves the Taylor Park Dam and surrounding areas.
Taylor River Hydro has been working to see the new facility completed and commissioned by December 31, 2023. But the lead time required for a highly specialized, precision valve that needs to be individually manufactured and installed has pushed the completion date to mid-February 2024.
Drought conditions are not expected to impact the generation capacity or function of Taylor River Hydro. “It is designed as a 500 kWh facility, and the Taylor River and Taylor Park Dam/Reservoir can accommodate up to 4 MW of electricity generation during high flows. As such, the new facility is expected to operate at or near full capacity year-round, even in drought conditions,” Feier said.
Hydropower doesn’t always get the attention of flashier advancements like wind and solar technologies, but it’s been around for 2,000 years, since the Greeks used it to turn wheels that ground wheat into flour.
Only the future will tell how much of a role hydro will play, but its time-tested techniques and green energy benefits promise it will still be providing some level of power 2,000 years from now.
Kylee Coleman, editor of Colorado Country Life, writes about issues affecting Colorado’s electric cooperatives and innovations in the electric industry.
Learn about some of Colorado’s past micro hydro projects in this 2017 article.
By Amy Higgins
All photography provided by Rick Harness, EDM
Our nation’s bird populations have been a topic of concern since the early 1900s when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted to control market hunting. As decades passed, additional legislation was added to protect birds from modern-day human conveniences, safeguarding wildlife while also protecting the grid.
This came to the forefront when, in the late 1990s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prosecuted Moon Lake Electric Association for violations of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the MBTA. Although MLEA is based in Utah, it’s notable that a large portion of their service territory is in Colorado, which is where eagles were found electrocuted.
Cognizant of bird electrocutions on their lines, electric co-ops reached out for guidance. Colorado cooperatives banded together through CREA, their trade association, and contacted utility consulting firm EDM International’s Certified Wildlife Biologist Rick Harness, who stepped in to help develop Avian Protection Plans or APPs. Today, every electric cooperative in Colorado has an Avian Protection Plan. In fact, “[Colorado] was the first state to do a holistic program,” Harness said.
Safeguarding Wildlife: APPs Take Flight
At a consulting firm in Missoula, Montana, Harness first witnessed avian electrocutions from power lines — he would stumble on a dead or injured bird under a power line. Eight years later, he came to Fort Collins to work at a consulting firm and go back to school to earn his master’s degree.
For his master’s work, Harness reached out to rural electric cooperatives, researched their services structures, identified at-risk bird species and recorded how frequently electrocutions occurred. This allowed him to assess the population impacts of power line mortality and came up with recommendations to help protect birds and strengthen the reliability of electric service.
It was around 1997 that the Fish and Wildlife Service decided that distribution lines caused an unacceptable level of bird mortality and that the problem wasn’t going away. Harness’s experience and knowledge earned him a role as a liaison between MLEA and the FWS, and a key role in the development of an early, precedent-setting APP.
Using his thesis work as a guideline, Harness concluded that it wasn’t necessary to retrofit every power pole in a utility’s distribution system. Instead, utilities could identify the poles and habitats that presented the greatest risks and put their dollars there.
“Moon Lake was happy because they didn’t have to do wholesale retrofitting. The Fish and Wildlife Service was happy because we were bringing science into it, and it was a third-party person that was taking responsibility for it,” Harness said.
Soon after, CREA contacted Harness and a statewide effort was proposed to develop a more streamlined process for Colorado electric cooperatives.
EDM started at Empire Electric Association in Cortez. Once the report was developed, it was vetted and approved by the FWS; then the rules were applied statewide. It took approximately three years for EDM to inspect all of the Colorado electric cooperatives’ systems and develop APPs.
As word got out about the APP, additional utilities followed suit and contacted EDM, including the Public Service Company of Colorado (Xcel Energy) and the Air Force Academy. “There’s excellent coverage across the state for Avian Protection Plans, and CREA was at the center of that effort,” said EDM Project Manager Duncan Eccleston.
Taking Wildlife Under Wing
To develop an APP, the utility’s current standards, structures and land are analyzed and a report of the consulting firm’s findings and recommendations is presented to the utility. Priority is given to high-risk poles and habitats where electrocutions and/or collisions are most likely to occur.
Recommendations for safeguarding wildlife may include adding insulation, creating additional spacing, if possible, or adding the proper products to existing structures so wildlife can avoid hazardous contacts.
The utility’s APP also includes a reactive program so it can quickly mitigate a problem when it arises and a proactive risk assessment to determine the biggest threats to the system and the surrounding environment, including wildlife.
These recommendations are invaluable and welcomed. After an engaging lineman training visit, SDCEA in Buena Vista was prompted to ask Eccleston to make annual visits going forward.
“The co-op lineman is really the focus because they know more than anybody and they see more than anybody,” Eccleston explained. “They have a lot at stake; they really do care.”
“We know [the APP] is not going to eliminate wildlife interactions, but at least it will minimize the impact,” said Holy Cross Energy VP of Operations Cody O’Neil. The Glenwood Springs electric cooperative used its original APP until around 2008, when it began updating and amending its plan. More changes were made in December 2019 to better align with current best practices.
“We believe that our outage numbers have decreased so our system reliability has increased,” O’Neil said. “We don’t have as many — part of this could be technological advances in some other areas as well — but we don’t have as many unknown outages as we did 20 years ago.”
In 2019, Grand Junction–based Grand Valley Power worked with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to build a nest for a pair of ospreys that claimed a pole in De Beque. Using APP guidelines, GVP linemen installed a new base for their avian members, waited, and then revisited the site to find the ospreys nesting in their new home.
APPs: More than Meets the Eye
“I think one misnomer that unfortunately a lot of folks attribute to avian protection is that it only benefits birds,” O’Neil said. “There are quite a few other critters out there that end up not getting electrocuted because we use these tactics.”
Raccoons. Squirrels. Really, any nonflying animal has added shielding with APPs. APP standards and efforts also help prevent wildfires and wildfire-caused outages while safeguarding wildlife. For example, if a squirrel climbs onto a transformer that’s not up to APP standards, it could get electrocuted, fall to the ground smoldering and cause the grass to ignite.
Eccleston explained, “The other thing that can happen is, even if they don’t fall onto the grass, they could trigger an expulsion fuse — the fuse swings open and it sends out a bunch of molten gas and sparks that could also start a fire.”
Colorado’s electric co-ops cherish wildlife and aim to protect the beautiful outdoors while also maintaining a reliable electric infrastructure for consumer-members.
Amy Higgins is a freelance writer who has reported on issues that affect electric cooperative consumer-members and their surrounding environments for more than a decade.
CREA recently added a new event to its portfolio: the Rocky Mountain Utility Exchange. This conference, recently acquired from Ed Thomas and Tiger Adolf, has been an esteemed energy industry-related event in the Centennial State for 16 years and CREA promises to bring the highest quality speakers to the table in September 2023.
CREA will accept presenter applications soon. The agenda will explore best practices and lessons learned about initiatives related to energy (gas and electricity) efficiency, water conservation, strategy issues, and integration with renewable energy, flexible load management, strategic load growth, and other customer-facing initiatives.
Click here to learn more.
On Season 2, Episode 2 of the CFC Solutions Cast podcast, Fort Collins-based Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association‘s President and CEO Jeff Wadsworth, Energy Resources Specialist Tony Francone and Engineer Jeremy Eldridge share how PVREA uses its microgrid and battery storage system to lessen the impact of wildfires, winter storms and tornadoes on its electrical system, creating a more reliable system for its consumer-members. Listen now:
Click here to learn more about battery storage in Colorado electric cooperative territories.
By Amy Higgins
Electricity is responsible for our hot morning coffee and daily meals. It keeps us cool under the sizzling sunshine and warm in wintry weather. And in the 21st century, the advancements go several steps further: Electricity delivers news and messages to the palms of our hands, quickly charges our vehicles and tools and stores critical information. And the innovations keep coming. Who knows what the future holds with the power of electricity? Electric books for kids help demonstrate how electricity came to be and how it has grown into the powerhouse it is today.
When we explain to our younger generations how life worked without the instant access we have to electricity today, it can sound like far-fetched fiction. Yet, for some of our older population, life without electricity was indeed the narrative in their youth, particularly for those living in rural communities.
As time goes on, there will be fewer recollections of life without electricity, so recorded accounts are valuable. Colorado Country Life is bringing to light three electric books for kids that will help young readers learn some of America’s history with electricity with the added perk of amusing anecdotes.
Electric Books for Kids: Fiction
By Terry Kay
The boys in the Our Side Gang are befuddled by the big-time clash between them and the Highway 17 Gang, until Colin Wynn, the narrator of the story, gets the skinny from his older brother Wesley.
It’s electricity. “Bingo!” 12-year-old Colin thinks. By golly, electricity must be the source of the social upheaval that overshadows him and his friends — all the folks of the rural Georgia town, in fact.
With their lickety-split lighting-speed, cushy kitchen appliances and fancy farm equipment, electricity brought power (literally and figuratively) and privilege to their neighbors on the other side of Highway 17, while the Our Side Gang and their rural town of Emery was left in the dark. But the Rural Electrification Administration was coming to Emery, and that will change everything. Colin is sure of it.
The Year the Lights Came On by Terry Kay takes readers along for the adventures, skirmishes and difficulties that the Our Side Gang encounters in 1947 and highlights the strength of steadfast friendships through Colin’s narrative. The Highway 17 Gang harbors ill-conceived notions that the Our Side Gang is “less than” simply because they light their homes with candles and oil lamps rather than incandescent lightbulbs and wash their clothes by hand instead of an electric washing machine.
The Year the Lights Came On is a coming-of-age tale with the REA’s arrival to the rural town of Emery thinly veiled in the storyline. Kay’s character development is compelling as he paints pictures throughout the book with great use of the five senses as well as humor. Originally published in 1976, Kay reworked the novel in 2007 to tighten it up and make it “appropriate for any age group.” With the latter in mind, readers should take note that there are terms in the book that may have been typical in the 1940s but are considered offensive in 2023.
By Curtis W. Condon
Ruby Mae Ryan is a feisty 12-year-old girl living on a farm with her family in rural Oregon. The hard-working townspeople in their community created an alliance and have been busy hoisting poles, draping wires and boring holes into the structures of homes and buildings for electrical outlets. They call this group an REA, a rural electric association, and it is owned by the entire town with one goal in mind: to bring electricity to an area where municipal power plants refuse to venture.
Ruby can’t wait. Her best friend Virginia and her friend-turned-nemesis Mary Belle have had electricity in their nearby town for a while now, so Ruby knows what she was missing: a real-life stove, lights that illuminate a whole room, and washing machines that clean clothes immaculately. Ruby has worked earnestly to save money for when the lights come on — several oddball jobs, but none as lucrative as her crawdad-catching business — to buy something particularly special, but she doesn’t want to jinx it by saying it out loud.
In Wish Upon a Crawdad, young readers will take a journey with strong-willed Ruby as she navigates friendships, friction, flubs and ferreting out crawdads — that is, if she can find them before her wish slips away from her grasp. Targeted toward middle schoolers, Wish Upon a Crawdad is a sweet tale of a red-headed spitfire who will stop at nothing to make her wish come true, with many stumbles along the way.
Electric Books for Kids: Historical Rendering
By Cynthia Simmelink Becker
Illustrated by Benjamin Hummel
In 2019, CCL reviewed and wrote about Lights On! Ike Hoover Electrifies the White House, but with its delightful illustrations, elaborate research and industry-appropriate information, it bears repeating.
Lights On! takes young readers through the steps it took for Ike Hoover (not to be confused with President Herbert Hoover) to ready the White House for electric lighting. Throughout the story, Hoover navigates the impressive building though the rafters and walls to install electrical wiring, and along the way builds relationships with the White House staff, including a rapport with President Benjamin Harrison.
The late Cynthia Simmelink Becker (author and Pueblo resident) pulled out all the stops researching and writing this book for young readers. It was important to Becker that she emphasize the fashion, technology and architecture of the era.
The most challenging aspect, she said, was locating real-life representations of the electrical equipment of the late 19th century. After extensive online research and numerous phone calls, she ultimately discovered that one of Edison’s 1890s turbines was on display at the Western
Museum of Mining and Industry in Colorado Springs, an invaluable revelation and resource for her book.
Illustrator and native Coloradan Benjamin Hummel revealed the ornate details of the White House and characters with vibrant depictions, and even cleverly concealed his signature bumblebee — an homage to his last name, which translates as “bumblebee” in German — throughout the story. While written for third- to fifth-graders, older bookworms will likewise get a charge out of Lights On!
By Katherine Loving
Last year saw a record increase in electric vehicle sales, and experts are predicting that many major vehicle manufacturers will only produce electric models by 2035. But what does electric vehicles’ impact on the grid look like?
A 2021 study by the Department of Energy showed that increased electrification, or replacement of direct fossil fuel use with electricity, would account for a 38% increase in electricity demand by 2050 — and EVs will play a major role in this increased electrification.
The need for more electricity will have a major impact on the nation’s grid, which means power supply and grid infrastructure must be carefully planned to accommodate the increased need for electricity.
EV charging presents new challenges in maintaining the electric grid. Fully charging an EV battery requires the same amount of electricity needed to power a home during peak energy use times. However, EV charging is a concentrated pull of energy over an extended period, which can add stress to the local power grid by increasing the amount of electricity a utility has to provide.
Additionally, the neighborhood transformer needs adequate capacity to handle the increased load. EV charging can shorten the life span of transformers by straining and overloading their capacity if they are not matched to a neighborhood’s energy needs.
Electric cooperatives are currently identifying ways to manage this new pattern of electricity use, although exact strategies will vary based on each utility’s unique needs. Analyzing energy load patterns or identifying where and when the local grid has spikes in demand can provide electric co-ops with data on where to place higher-capacity transformers. This analysis can also provide a picture of overall energy use and patterns to help forecast energy consumption for the future.
Planning system maintenance and upgrades are also part of that long-range forecasting; however, this has been recently complicated by supply chain issues for transformers with wait times that are upward of one year.
EV owners can play a role in reducing energy costs and system stress associated with charging. Some electric cooperatives offer a designated EV charging rate that you may want to consider. Typically, an EV rate incentivizes charging during the night, when electricity demand and wholesale energy rates are lower. Check with your electric cooperative to find out if it offers this incentive. Charging at night is also a great way to ease demand in your neighborhood, even without a special EV rate.
Another potential change on the horizon is a new energy peak time. EV drivers who plug in to charge as soon as they return home from work would create even more electricity demand during this busy time of day. But if EV drivers use a timer to schedule charging at night, the electricity demand could be spread over a longer period to reduce stress on the grid. This would be especially beneficial for neighborhoods with multiple EV drivers.
EVs are only expected to increase in number. Electric co-ops and EV owners both have roles to play in accommodating increased demand. If you own an EV, let your electric co-op know so it can better plan energy demand for you and your neighbors.
Katherine Loving writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
A new type of home is on the horizon that emphasizes energy efficiency and cost savings for both energy consumers and electric utilities. GCEA, with offices in Gunnison and Crested Butte, recently announced that it will be exhibiting one of these homes from VISION House Transcend to demonstrate to consumer-members the efficiency and technology capabilities homeowners can attain while also inhabiting a beautifully-designed domicile.
GCEA and its power supplier, Tri-State G&T, partnered with Green Builder Media and VISION House Transcend to bring this new demonstration project to the Gunnison area. Designed and constructed by California-based prefab builder Dvele, these homes are “unique in that they have been optimized for cost savings, waste reduction, quality control, and expedited construction timeframes.”
“We are excited to have a project like this in our service territory,” GCEA Member Relations Supervisor Alliy Sahagun said in a November 2022 press release. “It’s going to be an interesting way to share with members the capabilities of a highly energy efficient home, and we are eager to showcase all the technology the home will feature.”
Features of VISION House Transcend homes can include energy-efficient doors and windows, heat pump technology, solar panels and battery storage. GCEA will research and gather data from the demonstration project to construct educational materials to share with its consumer-members so they can visualize the ways they can help the environment and their pocketbooks.
Sahagun said, “We call this ‘beneficial electrification,’ and the VISION House Transcend will provide a wonderful demonstration of what BE looks like in real life.”
Leaders at San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative in Monte Vista and at Alamosa County began talks with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to share its eagerness to convert retired agricultural land to a renewable solar generation and transmission site.
Decades of drought and overpumping of groundwater have created swaths of vacant acreage, leaving the area vulnerable to natural disasters, such as the 2018 Spring Creek Fire and the 2021 Marshall Fire. A new solar generation and transmission site could be a significant asset for utilities to access power when natural disasters damage or destroy other existing electricity-generating infrastructure, leaders believe.
The PUC set a December 30 deadline to hear from members of the public who are interested in bringing this solar development to fruition, according to the Alamosa Citizen.