Water district offsets costs and keeps rates down using hydro generator

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Jim Jans, a 38-year veteran in the water field, stands in front of Corbett Water Districts first small-scale hydro generator.A new hydro generator installed earlier this year at a water treatment facility in Corbett is saving the small community’s water district hundreds of dollars a month on its electricity bill and helping to keep rates down for customers.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Water flowing through the hydro generators turbine produces about 240 kilowatts a day and saves Corbetts Water District more than $400 a month.By installing a 15 horse-power turbine that generates power as water flows off Gordon Creek through the water treatment facility, the Corbett Water District is harnessing energy that would have been otherwise wasted, said Jeff Busto, utility operator at Corbett Water District.

“The water we use at our treatment facility has a tremendous amount of stored energy, and we are harnessing that energy before we use the water,” Busto said.

Power generated is in turn sold back to Portland General Electric, where it enters a power grid and is re-distributed to customers. According to the Oregon Public Utility Commission, the extra kilowatts go into a power pool that PGE provides to families who can’t afford to pay their electricity bill.

The service is called net metering.

“It’s a win-win situation for both parties involved,” said Jim Jans, district manager at Corbett Water District, which saw its first full month of results in March.

The Corbett Water District cut its electricity bill from an average of $400 month to zero.

Money saved then goes to offset the water district’s other costs to maintain, filter and distribute water to Corbett’s 1,080 customers.

Jans said the operational costs have been skyrocketing over the past decade. He cites a 20 percent increase in the last eight years.

The problem is being felt everywhere.

Inflation has caused everything to go up, from the price of fuel to paying for equipment and maintenance at the facility.

Meanwhile, people are seeing their water bills on the rise.

To help keep rates down, Corbett Water District’s six employees have done a fair share of creative thinking.

The path to hydro wasn’t easy and required more than two years of paperwork for the district to seek approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the project.

Jans was working on a water system on the Washington side of the Columbia River 10 years ago when he began his research into hydrogenation. When he asked why they were not taking advantage of hydro power, his superior told him that installing a hydro turbine on a domestic drinking water main was illegal.

Jans was floored, and decided to investigate further.

Hydro power has been used since the 1770s and for decades, irrigation, sewer and storm-water systems have taken advantage of hydro generators. But Jans could only find very large water systems, such as the city of Portland and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, that used hydrogenerators for drinking water.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Corbett Water District goes green and gets a new logo for its hydro generator. “I thought why couldn’t a smaller water system build a small hydro generator and generate some income to help cut the cost of providing water for their customers?” said Jans.

Jans started talking to the board about generating power when he joined the Corbett Water District in 2007. Between he and Busto, the two have more than 68 years of experience in the water field.

While the board was supportive of the hydro idea, Jans said “The permit process was a nightmare.”

In 2013, two months before the district received its permits, President Barack Obama signed into law the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act, making it easier for the development of small output hyropower systems and reducing the paperwork process down to about 45 days.

“This new paperwork process will help Oregon obtain other forms of energy,” Jans said.

Most energy in the United States is produced by fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants. About 7 percent of total power is produced by hydroelectricity.

The Grand Coulee project on the Columbia River in Washington state is the largest hydroelectric facility in the country producing 6,809 megawatts, while the Three Gorge Dam in China is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, generating 22,500 megawatts.

David Jacob, engineer at Hydra Engineering, designed the 2-foot-tall generator that sits on a concrete foundation at the Corbett Water District’s treatment facility on Larch Mountain. The device produces about 10 kilowatts an hour, or about 240 kilowatts per day.

Busto said the hydro generator doesn’t require much maintenance.

“We just read the electric meter and that’s it.”

Water is directed through pipes from Larch Mountain’s Gordon Creek and enters a turbine that quietly spins and slows down the water, generating power before it is distributed to one of three filtering ponds.

After the water filters through sand and gravel, chlorine is added and the water is piped into a 1 million gallon tank, where it is stored and distributed to homes and farms in unincorporated Multnomah County.

Because water enters the turbine before it is filtered, the water treatment doesn’t change. No fuel is burned and no harmful pollutants enter the air. The equipment advancements have left more time and money for Corbett’s water team to work on other projects like maintaining water mains before they break.

“Our budget is very small, $1,015,000, but we still must meet the requirements to supply safe drinking water at the best possible price,” Jans said.

The water district was able to keep the $60,000 hydro project under budget. With the help of energy tax credits and grants, they only had to pay about $18,000 in outlay.

To add to the cost savings, the Corbett Water District relied on its own employees, who wear many hats in the trade — from welding and painting to mechanics — to install the new equipment.

Jans said Corbett’s five-member Water District board has been helpful “in letting us think outside the box and go green.”

The team plans to look at how they can use small micro hydro in other areas of the water system, such as distribution.

Since Obama’s bill passed, Jans said, “We believe there will be more systems building units.”

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