In the end, Ouray got its new hydroelectric plant, which monthly generates enough power to offset $1,600 US in electricity used by pumps in the town's hot springs swimming pool. But Mayor Bob Risch wishes that the two new federal laws signed by President Barack Obama in August had been adopted before he set out to get his project approved.
Those two new laws simplify the federal government's process for small hydroelectric projects involving pre-existing infrastructure. Promoters say the laws will make it easier to harness the power of flowing water in existing irrigation canals, small dams, and even municipal water lines. Neither of the new laws will result in new dams or diversions. They apply only to existing infrastructure and to installations of five megawatts or less.
The previous process was cumbersome. "It was unbelievable," said Risch, of requirements for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permit. "They sent you a list of all the steps you have to go through. For example, it included a list of 55 organizations to which we had to send letters, informing them that we were going to start this process and invite comment from them."
As mayor, Risch had volunteered to do all this himself. A native of the town, he spent 33 years teaching astronomy and operating a planetarium in metropolitan Denver before retiring to Ouray, population 1,000.
An old mining town set in a coluorful box canyon of red and orange rocks, the town calls itself the Switzerland of America. In recent years its ice-climbing festival has become internationally renowned.
Ouray has used hydroelectric power since the late 1800s. At times, the price of locally generated electricity was undercut by more cheaply produced electricity from coal-fired power plants. In recent years, however, the Ouray Town Council adopted a goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 20 per cent.
To that end, Ouray retrofitted its streetlights with LED technology, saving energy and money: $10,000 a year.
Another idea then came along: repurposing a 1,800-metre-long pipeline that had been laid by a bankrupt water-bottling company from a spring above Ouray. With 91 additional metres it would reach a site adjacent to the old generating turbine and could produce electricity.
Under U.S. law, however, any new electrical source involving water diversion tripped the FERC process. That process had been developed in the wake of the massive dam-building enterprises of the early 20th century, which had resulted in significant destruction of streams and associated aquatic life.
Those laws, however, are painted with a very broad brush. "Insane" is how Kurt Johnson describes the FERC process.
Johnson has a small business, Telluride Energy, which is dedicated to hydroelectric adaptations of existing infrastructure such as the nation's 80,000 dams, most of which are small and relatively few of which produce electricity.
In recent years, Johnson has told many potential customers to bide their time, until the federal review process was made easier and less costly.
Consultants could be hired to negotiate this process, but fees of $10,000 to $20,000 would have killed the economics of the project in Ouray. To save the project, Risch agreed to run this gauntlet for the town's hydroelectric proposal. It was exhausting. Finally, in 2011, Ouray got FERC permission to install the turbine, which cost $3,500 and is now installed next to the town's original generator. After a century, the fundamental technology of turbines is little changed.