Snohomish Public Utility District in the US has recently opened Youngs Creek small hydropower project, the first new hydro scheme in Washington State for almost 20 Years. Neil Neroutsos reports.
Despite the recent economic slowdown, Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) in Washington State, US, expects rapid growth in its customer base over the next 20 years. In addition its elected board of commissioners has made a commitment, as part of its climate change policy, to meet additional load growth through aggressive energy conservation and renewable energy sources. As a result small hydropower projects are set to become key components of the utility's energy mix.
"We want to develop these resources to the extent possible within our own service territory," says PUD General Manager Steve Klein. "By doing so, we can better determine and guide our own destiny, providing economic development and jobs within our community."
In October 2011, the utility opened the first new hydroelectric project in Washington State for nearly 20 years. The project demonstrates that new small hydropower sites can be developed to be cost effective and meet high environmental standards.
The Youngs Creek facility, located about 6.4km south of the city of Sultan, has a generating capacity of 7.5MW -enough power for more than 2000 homes. The project will output the highest levels of energy during the winter months, the highest demand period. In drier summer months, it will operate in limited capacity or be shut down temporarily for maintenance.
The utility purchased the land for its Youngs Creek project in 2008. The site had an existing licence from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which was originally issued to Puget Sound Energy. The previous owner had developed some initial designs but never moved forward on the project. PUD officials worked with FERC to assume the licence with the condition that the hydropower project would be built by the end of 2011. This short FERC project deadline put the PUD on the fast track, but the utility was able to tap existing staff and assemble a project team to meet multiple construction deadlines.
The Youngs Creek site offered several benefits. Like other PUD small hydropower projects, it's located outside of sensitive areas, such as designated wilderness lands. The powerhouse and intake are above a natural barrier, a waterfall, so there are no issues related to migrating fish.
The project is also located close to two other PUD hydropower projects - Woods Creek and the Jackson project - so it can be easily operated and maintained by existing staff.
"We also see small hydropower as a resource that's competitively priced or cheaper than other green energy sources,' says PUD Manager of Generation Engineering Scott Spahr. "These projects give us greater flexibility with our power supply as they're locally generated, reliable resources that provide energy at times of the year when it's needed the most."
The utility engaged with multiple stakeholders during its planning process, including local tribes, environmental groups and regulatory agencies. It worked closely with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and other state and federal agencies to ensure that the project was designed to provide adequate levels of river flow and fish protection.
Extremely wet conditions in fall 2010 also created challenges in the timing of some construction. The community of Sultan, about 6km from the project site, received an economic boost during the construction phase, as contractors' crews coming through the area increased revenues for local hotels, restaurants and various retailers.
Small hydro potential
Snohomish PUD is assessing several additional small hydropower sites for potential development in the next five to 10 years. The projects' generating potential ranges anywhere from 2-25MW. If fully developed, the collective energy output could serve tens of thousands of PUD customers.
As with the Youngs Creek site, the PUD has been proactive in engaging community members and regulatory agencies as it considers new projects. In many cases it can bring improvements to the community as it develops projects. For example, a project on the Skykomish River in Western Washington, now in the study phase, could include improvements to a state-operated fish trap and haul facility. The state programme uses trucks to transport fish 6.4km upstream around a set of waterfalls, providing more than 161km of additional spawning habitat for fish. The state, strapped for funding to upgrade the facility, could get critical support from the PUD for the fish operation if the hydropower project is completed.
"In assessing potential sites, we're especially mindful of anadromous fish populations, hydrology, geology, environmental issues and access to existing roads and transmission lines, " comments PUD Assistant General Manager of Water, Generation and Corporate Services Kim Moore. "We want to balance energy generation with the need to protect river flows, water quality and cultural resources."
The PUD small hydropower facilities are designed as run-of- river projects. Given rainfall patterns in the region, the generating output is naturally maximised during times of high energy demand. These facilities also complement other intermittent energy sources, such as wind and solar.
New small hydropower sites require approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. For its planning purposes, the utility expects each project will take five to seven years from the application stage to completion of construction. Small hydro facilities currently don't qualify under Washington's renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Although a recently proposed state bill sought to include new hydro projects of an average of 5MW or less, it didn't pass. The PUD and other utilities have supported such legislation.
An essential source
For decades, the bulk of the PUD's energy has come from hydroelectric power. Most of this is purchased from Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which markets wholesale power generated in the Columbia river basin in Washington. In addition to Youngs Creek, the PUD operates two other hydropower plants in Snohomish County. The 112MW Jackson hydroelectric project was built in 1984 and the 650kW Woods Creek project was purchased from a private party and upgraded in 2008. Along with BPA energy, about 80% of the PUD's energy portfolio now comes from hydropower.
Neil Neroutsos is the media liaison for Snohomish County Public Utility District, north of Seattle, Washington, US.