Board has big ideas for power on a small scale

A small local irrigation district is hoping to turn a canal into cash with a small hydropower retrofit that could become a blueprint for creating mini power generators out of the Rogue Valley's irrigation canals.

The Rogue River Valley Irrigation District is studying whether it can add a micro-hydropower plant to an irrigation diversion, and sell the power to offset some of its operation costs.

The 100- to 110-kilowatt generator envisioned for the canal off Highway 140 would harness the swift flows down a steep slope to spin turbines and generate enough electricity to power about two dozen homes.

"We're already diverting the water, so we might as well put it to some use," District Manager Brian Hampson says.

"I think it's a great deal — if it pencils out," he says.

The district's board of directors Friday took the first step toward that by hiring HDR Engineering to conduct a pre-feasibility study on the project, which would be the first of its kind in the Rogue Valley.

The study, which will cost $4,500, will begin examining everything from the type of generator and costs, how it could deliver electricity to the grid and how long it would likely take to pay for itself and begin generating income.

If the project is completed and deemed to qualify under a set of utility rules, Pacific Power would be required to buy the electricity under a price and terms set by the Oregon Public Utility Commission, Pacific Power spokesman Monte Mendenhall says. Other irrigation districts are watching RRVID's progress as they also look at tapping local canals as a power source during a time when myriad projects harnessing the elements begin to dot the Oregon landscape.

Northeast Oregon's new windmill farms and 5 megawatt power plants recently piggybacked onto a handful of Central Oregon irrigation canals have sprouted in recent years to generate electricity.

Armed with a $20,000 grant from the Oregon Energy Trust, the Talent Irrigation District last year studied its canal system and discovered four potential sites where water flows were swift and bountiful enough for possible retrofits of small generators.

"If you can afford the capital costs and jump through all the hoops, it can be beneficial," says TID Manager Jim Pendleton, whose district is still studying micro-hydropower. "It could be a good way to generate a little bit of revenue for the district."

Installing small generators onto irrigation canals is not new in the Rogue Valley, which is pockmarked with small facilities pumping electricity directly to power ranches and farms, with occasional sales of their excess to Pacific Power.

Also, the Eagle Point Irrigation District in 1994 took over a small private venture along Little Butte Creek that generates 1 megawatt of energy on the district's diversion.

Micro-hydro projects, however, received a boost recently when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission streamlined its permitting process for adding power plants of 5 megawatts or less to existing pipes and canals.

"Because of that, we assume we're going to see a lot more of these," says David Harris, who works on hydropower projects in southwest Oregon for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"A lot of these municipalities and irrigation districts are going to start getting creative," Harris says.

Hampson says RRVID leaders for years have floated the idea of creating hydropower as a way of easing water-delivery costs to its 901 patrons who pay $122 as an annual fee plus $55.25 for every acre of land they irrigate.

The district's only real logical opportunity lies along a steep diversion called "Bradshaw Drop." There, an average of 20 cubic feet per second of water diverted from Little Butte Creek plunges 95 feet in elevation over a 125-foot section en route to Agate Lake, Hampson says.

The diversion already is screened for fish, so the study will look at the cost and benefits of piping that section and running it through turbines to deliver electricity into the power grid somewhere along Highway 140.

The district does not run pumps on its canals, so any power generated and not used by the plant itself would be sold to Pacific Power, Hampson says.

Hampson says his district will seek grants to offset as much of the cost of studying and building the plant to ensure it pencils out before pushing forward with it.

"If it doesn't, it doesn't," Hampson says. "But we have to look somewhere."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or

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