When Ridgway Dam was constructed on the Uncompahgre River back in the 1970s and 1980s, hydropower was anticipated to be one of its uses, along with providing irrigation water, drinking water and flood control. Mike Berry, general manager of Tri-County Water, which operates the dam, has been looking for opportunities to start generating hydropower since at least 2002. It wasn’t until this month, however, that this vision was finally realized. In June, Tri-County Water officially commissioned a new 8 megawatt generating station powered by water flowing through the dam.
Finding a customer to buy the power at the right price was the key that allowed the project to go forward. The City of Aspen’s agreement to pay a premium for the power generated by Ridgway Dam in the early years of a 20-year contract, in exchange for better rates later on, made it possible to finance the $18 million project. Tri-County will also sell power to Tri-State Generation & Transmission and the Town of Telluride.
The power generated by Ridgway Dam will vary seasonally, with peak generation coinciding with large summer releases of water to downstream irrigators. The Grand Junction Sentinel reported last week that the plant will produce a total of about 24,000 megawatt hours of electricity in an average year, which is enough to supply 2,500 average homes and eliminate 50 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.
The Ridgway Dam generating station was commissioned just one year after the completion of a 7.5 megawatt power generation project on the South Canal, which carries water from the Gunnison Tunnel near Montrose to the irrigators of the Uncompahgre Valley.
Both the Ridgway Dam and South Canal projects have avoided the opposition previous hydropower projects faced because they are installed on existing infrastructure and are harvesting power from the regular operations of the facilities. As a result, irrigation deliveries are uninterrupted, and there are no additional disruptions to river flows.
Interest in retrofitting existing water infrastructure to add power generation capability has surged in recent years, and both the State of Colorado and the federal government have made moves to support the trend with new laws to streamline the permitting process.
Finding customers for the power generated at prices that can pay for construction is one of the key challenges faced by those interested in developing such facilities. Low prices for natural gas and the irregular supplies generated by such projects are complicating factors in working out power purchase agreements. One the other side of the equation, renewable energy standards passed by Colorado and other states have created new opportunities.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or twitter at https://twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU .