Project Saves $2.25 Million a Year in Power Costs
MONTROSE – As the days grow shorter and water from the Gunnison Tunnel is shut off for winter, Delta-Montrose Electric Association officials say two new hydroelectric facilities on the South Canal will produce enough megawatts of clean, renewable electricity to save $2.25 million a year in electricity costs.
Water was shut off on Oct. 30, and the new facilities have been winterized, on the heels of upgrades completed this summer.
When water returns to the Gunnison Tunnel, its force will generate even more hydroelectricity to the DMEA grid than it did this year. According to DMEA Renewable Energy Engineer James Heneghan, approximately 16,000 megawatt hours of electricity were produced from the two locations this year.
Heneghan said that next year, thanks to minor upgrades, as many as 24,000 to 28,000 megawatt hours could be produced. A peak capacity test completed towards the end of the season showed both units were functioning as designed, he said.
The first new unit, Site 1, about one-eighth of a mile from where water emerges from the tunnel into the South Canal, is designed to produce 4 megawatt hours. Site 2, roughly half-a-mile downstream, is designed to produce about 3.5 megawatts hours. Mountain State Hydro, of Boise, Idaho, completed the work for DMEA.
At Site 1, water is diverted from a concrete spillway built in the 1940s into a 14-foot-wide pipe and constrained into a 11-foot-wide pipe, funneling flow to a generator roughly 300 yards downhill.
The force of the water turns a large “ship-like propeller,” Heneghan said, producing a maximum of 4 megawatts of electrical power that is then transmitted to DMEA's East Montrose substation. Vibration sensors keep track of the generator's moving parts, in a system engineered to thousandths of an inch.
"All in all, it was a tremendous success for us," Heneghan said of work on the project this year. "We expect to run for the entire irrigation season next year.”
Snowpack levels, winter temperatures and agricultural demand for water will all be factors in determining when the tunnel is re-opened next year; Heneghan said he expects the season to begin in April and run until November.
Based on historic flows, Heneghan said, DMEA will be able to generate five percent of its annual electrical needs from the South Canal hydro plants.
DMEA receives its wholesale electrical supply from Tri-State Generation and Transmission Assn., although, Heneghan said, the electric co-op expects a Tri-State increase soon. With new renewable energy laws passed this year, co-ops like DMEA will be required to provide 10 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020 (wholesalers like Tri-State have to reach 20 percent by the end of the decade).
The current South Canal project lifts DMEA to five percent renewables in its energy portfolio; wholesale purchasing contracts between DMEA and Tri-State limit DMEA from further expanding its renewable portfolio beyond the current five percent until about 2016.
Heneghan told The Watch in June that he expects DMEA to meet the new 10 percent state requirement by the end of the decade.
DMEA secured a 21-year, low-interest Clean Renewable Energy Bond to partly finance the upgrade.
DMEA has invested $22 million to finish the South Canal project; in today's dollars, Heneghan said, the South Canal project will save DMEA approximately $2.25 million a year in electricity costs.
For safety reasons, the public must not tamper with or trespass on the two south canal facilities.
A NEW TWIST IN A LONG HISTORY
Back in 1909, President William Howard Taft pledged that his administration would commit to more reclamation projects throughout the American West, to facilitate the development of its towns and agriculture.
Taft was in Montrose on September 23 of that year to personally open the 5.8-mile-long Gunnison Tunnel. Irrigation was the prime motivator for the project, but energy creation was also envisioned. As a New York Times reporter who attended the Sept. 23, 1909 opening ceremonies wrote presciently, "The water, after it leaves the tunnel, will have 372 feet to fall, which can be used to generate electric power sufficient to light every town and every farmhouse in the Uncompahgre Valley and provide power for all kinds of commercial and industrial purposes."