If This Is What It Takes to Produce 8 Kilowatts . . .

A few years ago the San Juan County Historical Society in Silverton, Colorado had a wonderful idea for reducing the $600-a-month electric bill at its historic Mayflower Mill, an 83-year-old gold-and-silver refinery. Why not install a small hydroelectric turbine so the National Historical Landmark could generate its own electricity?

The least populated county in Colorado, San Juan has a proud history in hydro. The nation’s first alternating current dams were built in nearby Ames and Tacoma in the late 19th century, several years before George Westinghouse and Nikolai Tesla achieved success at Niagara Falls. Both mountain dams are still operating.  

“A century ago, mills all over the San Juan Mountains were powered by hydroelectricity,” says Bev Rich, chairman of the Historical Society. “It’s a fortunate result of our geography and an abundant water supply. We proposed using this historic technology to carry our organization into the future.”

The initial steps proved surprisingly easy. The Society secured a $105,000 grant from History Colorado. It acquired a 300-square-foot shed in nearby Eureka once used to shelter miners waiting to make the trip up the mountain and hauled it up to the mill to house the turbine. An existing pipeline already diverted water from the Arastra Gulch higher up in the mountains. The whole complex would generate 8 kilowatts, enough to power Mayflower through the tourist season. Then during the winter the surplus electricity could be sold to the local San Miguel Power Association.  

At this point, the Historical Society encountered the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  

It seems that generating any kind of electricity with water anywhere in the United States is a federal matter. And being a federal matter, it requires all kinds of environmental, architectural, biological, archaeological, and anthropological review.  

“First they required us to produce detailed architectural drawings of the shed housing the generator,” says Rich. “Then they needed a new survey determining exactly where the shed sits on the property. Next we had to open a 30-day comment period for every federal agency you can think of, including responses from downstream Indian tribes. The whole process would cost us an additional $25,000 and take months to complete.”  

Fortunately, Kurt Johnson, an attorney with Telluride Energy in nearby Telluride and president of the Colorado Small Hydro Association, volunteered to help the Society thread the bureaucratic obstacle course pro bono. Still, the process has taken the better part of a year with no end in sight. “The generator was ready to go into operation last fall,” says Johnson. “We are still waiting.”  

Mayflower Mills became Exhibit A in a Congressional hearing aimed at shortening the regulatory process for small energy projects. “It’s the same with putting solar collectors on your house,” says Johnson. “You have to get approval from both state and federal agencies. A person ends up spending more money on regulatory approval than on the capital investment itself.”

But carving out an exception for small projects like Mayflower only ignores the whole problem of excessive and redundant regulation of all energy projects. Executives in the nuclear industry now complain that one of their biggest problems is having project directors at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission retire before the regulatory review can be completed.  

So if it seems difficult to get approval for an 8-kilowatt hydroelectric project, think of what it’s like to try to build a 1,500-megawatt nuclear reactor. 

—William Tucker is a veteran journalist who has covered energy and the environment for 30 years.  His work has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The American Spectator, National Review, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, Reader’s Digest, Reason and many other publications.  Terrestrial Energy is his fourth book, available from his website and from Reprinted by permission.

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