There may be a largely untapped source of power just flowing downstream in Wyoming.
The Idaho National Laboratory estimates more than 500 megawatts of hydropower is yet to be developed here. Another study, by the Bureau of Reclamation, and related to government-controlled properties only, adds another 23 megawatts to the picture.
Some possible projects have been left undeveloped because of technological concerns. Bureaucracy has blocked others, adding review and application processes too expensive for some small developers to handle.
Still, many observers say the sources of power are there, and they could be harnessed in a fiscally responsible way, so long as expectations are in line with reality.
Water is a potential source of electricity for the state in the future. All that’s left for the state and federal government is to make it happen, and some think those steps could come soon.
An Idaho National Laboratory study of potential hydropower projects across the country published in 2006 showed that in Wyoming, 507 megawatts of potential power are in project areas considered feasible for developers.
That means proximity to power lines and available water are suitable for investment.
Doug Hall worked extensively on the project. Before his retirement earlier this spring, Hall worked as technical water lead for the Idaho Falls-based lab — which supports the Department of Energy.
What he remembers seeing of Wyoming, he said, was that its potential for hydropower was pretty good.
“There are two pieces to hydropower,” he said. “One is water and the other is elevation. You certainly have elevation in the state of Wyoming. You do have water resources, as well.”
Hall said his group’s study identified more than 3,000 megawatts of potential energy along Wyoming’s waterways, including rivers and canals. Most of the state’s potential was in the west, northwest and along the North Platte River.
Using criteria that he called “very conservative,” the lab cut that estimate down to about 500 megawatts of water power that could be affordable to develop and not block water flow.
Only 14 states, mostly those west of Wyoming, showed more potential.
“That’s a fairly substantial resource to be explored,” Hall said. “It certainly would seem like there’s plenty of opportunity for exploration or
A study released last year piggybacks on what the Idaho laboratory determined.
In a March 2012 report, the Bureau of Reclamation determined that Wyoming’s small canals — some of which run under roads — could generate 23 megawatts of power. The number was second among the 13 states that bureau governs, surpassed only by the 27 megawatts of potential in Colorado.
Coleman Smith, Wyoming area manager for the agency, supervises waters used across the state for irrigation, some of which is also used for electricity generation.
Smith said the bureau’s study could generate commercial interest. “I would be surprised if there weren’t some companies looking at moving forward to see if projects would be feasible,” he said.
But feasibility remains a big concern.
Bill moves forward
U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., recently toured Lower Valley Energy’s hydropower projects in Afton.
She didn’t make the trip with legislation in mind, but rather to gain a better knowledge of which water-powered projects exist in her home state. What she saw was an opportunity.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “Some of these smaller generation opportunities escape our attention in Wyoming, because we’re the mega-provider of natural resources for energy.”
In March, Lummis and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., co-introduced H.R. 678, which among other things would streamline the process needed to permit small hydropower generators in the West.
Lummis told the Star-Tribune in April that she hopes the bill will encourage the Bureau of Reclamation to work to establish more capacity in Western streams and canals.
“We wanted to make clear to them that, yes, we want them to use their authority to create hydropower generation,” she said. “The fact that bureaucratic red tape was tying up the ability to get these going was a large part of the emphasis.”
The bill passed the House 416 votes to seven. In late April, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., introduced the measure in the Senate. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to vote on the measure Wednesday.
“In terms of renewable energy, hydropower is a terrific source,” Barrasso said in April. “This can generate significant electricity.”
Hall, Barrasso, Lummis and Smith each said that any generation likely to spring up would have to be small — generators sized at a megawatt or less and that can help defray power costs for communities or water districts.
Hall said hyper-local hydropower could have benefits, bringing security to small, isolated towns or even individuals.
“If it was set up correctly, a small town could have a hydroelectric plant,” Hall said. “It could be such that if the grid went down they could keep operating in an isolated mode from grid.”
Lummis said she would expect mostly small generators — also called “microhydro” units — to come to Wyoming. She said most would likely be private-public partnerships.
“With our small population and the long distances we have to span to deliver energy at home, it’s really exciting to learn more about these smaller-scale, locally delivered and utilized energy resources,” she said. “Some generators would be smaller than a typical backyard storage unit.”
Barrasso said he sees things going similarly.
“This is energy that will be used locally,” he said. “It’s not energy to be shipped out of the state.”
Hall said any generators installed would likely follow one of four configurations, none of which obstruct water flow.
Among the possibilities are a man-made diversion weir — a submerged wall that helps divert water. Hall said developers could also look at excavating small channels that would feed into a generator or target islands with small channels through them, damming the channel.
A natural bend in a river could also present an opportunity for developers. The bend naturally forces water to the outer bank of the river, potentially pushing water into a feeding system for the generator.
In each of the above configurations, the water would run through a powerhouse and come out the other side, where it would re-enter the normal stream.
There are sure to be some snags in hydropower’s possible path to Wyoming relevance.
Likely chief among the concerns, should the hydro bill pass, will be whether it’s a smart investment to install a small generator.
Hall said the Idaho laboratory study was a first step in showing that producers can responsibly produce hydropower from Wyoming. Any actual fiscal study would fall to interested producers.
“The studies that we’ve done take it to the point of feasible potential,” he said. “The business about whether the site is economical to develop, if somebody wanted to give us a lot of money, we could take a crack at it.”
Representatives of Idaho Power, a utility to Wyoming’s west that relies heavily on hydro-generation, said they’ve done little to pursue small or micro-hydro generators.
“It’s hard to jump over that capital-investment hurdle and make a profit,” said Ryan Adelman, civil engineering lead for the company’s power production group. “That’s why we’re not seeing the full potential.”
The company has instead poured most of its resources into large generators. Idaho Power owns 17 hydro plants that have about 1,700 megawatts of installed capacity.
The company says that while hydropower generation can be seasonal, it’s far less variable than another often-discussed renewable energy source: wind.
“By and large, we’ll see wind production vary quite rapidly,” said Phil Devol, resource planner for the company. “To my knowledge, hydro projects don’t vary anywhere like that.”
It may soon become easier to permit small operations.
Randy Lee is the technical lead for the Idaho National Laboratory’s geospacial science group. He said if the current bill is passed, it could carve a path for future projects.
“The big hurdle [for hydro power] has always been licensing,” he said. “It was the same license required for a 10-kilowatt plant as it was for a 60-gigawatt plant. It’s not possible for those low producers to put that money into developing.”
Barrasso and Lummis each said they wanted the bill to pass before they spent too much time consulting with individual producers. Smith, who oversees much of Wyoming’s water, said he also hasn’t been in talks with producers, but would expect the bill to change that.
The step taken by the bill may be small, and it wouldn’t exactly create a new main source of power — 500 megawatts is about a third the size of Wyoming’s wind capacity in 2012. But Barrasso said any hydropower is worth it.
“I always think of three ‘E’s’ – energy security, economic growth and environmental stewardship,” he said. “In Wyoming we do it well. The more local energy we can get from hydropower, the better.”