Area rancher taps into hydropower | AspenTimes.com

Area rancher taps into hydropower

Joel Stonington
Aspen, CO Colorado

Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

OLD SNOWMASS ” Rancher and local developer John McBride walked over to his electric meter Tuesday afternoon and pointed to the numbers ticking backward, as electricity was fed into the grid from his new micro-hydroelectric plant.

The custom-built system works both as gravity-fed irrigation and as a power plant ” producing up to five kilowatts of electricity per hour. The idea behind it is simple, utilizing the gentle slope of McBride’s Capitol Creek property in Old Snowmass, but revolutionary for rural properties in the West.

That’s because, to some degree, it’s all about the money: McBride estimated that the hydro plant on his ranch will be a money maker in two to three years.

Half of the $20,000 initial investment was repaid by McBride’s energy company, Holy Cross, as a benefit for becoming a small power producer, and Holy Cross then buys excess energy from McBride.

Micro-hydro is also one of many tools for those seeking the elusive net-zero energy use homes or workplaces. However, to many considering a small power plant, the good environmental impact is just a bonus behind the economic effect.

With rising energy prices, the idea has been gaining steam, and Pitkin County commissioners are pondering a code amendment that will make it easier to build micro-hydroelectric plants. For many spots in the valley, commissioners would have to pass an amendment to the land-use code that allows for building on steep slopes near water.

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Apart from some larger plants, the city of Aspen has a small hydroelectric facility at Maroon Creek, and plans are underway to revamp a 19th-century facility at the base of the Castle Creek Bridge.

However, it’s plants like the one proposed by Bruce FaBrizio on Brush Creek, that would spring up if Pitkin County passed the amendment. When running at full capacity, the plant will generate 32 kilowatts of electricity per hour, enough to light up 12 average-sized homes.

The intake for McBride’s micro-hydro plant is about 250 vertical feet above where the plant is situated. Every two and a half feet of vertical adds another pound per square inch. Hence, the power plant is basically a small turbine powered by water under pressure of 100 pounds per square inch.

“There are a lot of people here who have the water to produce hydro-power,” said Jose Miranda, a senior manager at Carbondale’s InPower Systems. “For the people who have the water, you can produce a lot of energy.”

Miranda, a solar engineer by background, pointed out that solar can only collect sunlight for so many hours a day, while hydro provides output 24 hours a day. So a two-kilowatt solar system produces roughly half or less of the energy of a two kilowatt hydro system.

As water goes down the valleys near Aspen, the vertical drop can be substantial, leading to the possibility of numerous small plants. If the county code passes, the code amendment could clear the way for dozens of hydroelectric plants in the area, and that doesn’t even include folks like McBride.

Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com.