Colorado Springs Utilities is teaming with two other agencies to study the feasibility of building a hydroelectric plant at Pueblo Reservoir that could power the equivalent of 2,000 homes.
But it would generate only 7 megawatts, a fraction of the 28-megawatt Tesla hydro plant located at the Air Force Academy, Springs Utilities' biggest.
Although Utilities officials downplay the project, saying it's only in the beginning planning stages, the Bureau of Reclamation has issued a draft environmental assessment, for which public comment closed on Jan. 30. And after a final environmental study is released within months, the project can move ahead, according to a Bureau spokesperson.
Although the plant would be small, John Fredell, director of Utilities' Southern Delivery System pipeline project, called it "a real neat idea."
He also noted that Utilities enabled the project by adding a connection for the power plant, at the Bureau's request, when it built the outlet on the dam's north side in recent years to feed water into the SDS pipeline, which is slated to begin delivering water in April.
Still, where the money will come from to fund the plant and who would actually own it hasn't been worked out.
The project was launched about five years ago when Utilities, Pueblo Board of Water Works and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District got together to seek a preliminary permit to plan and study the project, according to the Bureau.
The district was established in 1958 to be responsible for repaying certain costs associated with construction, operation and maintenance of the federal transmountain Fryingpan-Arkansas Project of which Pueblo Reservoir is a component. The district levies a property tax in several counties, including El Paso County, for that purpose.
The Bureau issued a permit in early 2012 that recognized the three partners' priority for a lease of power privilege, or LOPP, pending further study. A final LOPP is expected in 2016, the Bureau says, which would allow the project to move forward with final design and construction.
David Robbins, a water attorney who consults for Springs Utilities, says via email that when the Southeast District sought the right to negotiate to build the hydro plant, it needed a partner with electrical power expertise, which led to Springs Utilities' involvement.
According to the Bureau's description of the project, the power plant would be connected to the Black Hills Corp. Pueblo Reservoir Substation, built in 2014.
From there, the power could be used for electric needs at Pueblo Dam, Pueblo Fish Hatchery, SDS's Juniper Pump Station adjacent to the outlet, Pueblo West Metropolitan District's pump station and various federal facilities.
For now, though, Utilities has worked out a deal for Black Hills to provide power to the Juniper Pump Station separate from any hydropower plant, Fredell says. He also notes that it's unlikely the hydro plant would operate 24/7, which is required to power the Juniper station.
The Bureau's environmental study says delivery of water downstream from the reservoir wouldn't be interrupted by the power plant, and the plant would have no effect on water quality or endangered species, and would only temporarily impact air quality and noise during construction.
But all that gets ahead of the game, says Utilities spokesman Eric Isaacson. "This new proposed hydro project is still in the feasibility stage," he says via email.
"We're involved as a partner simply because we have an interest in how the water from the reservoir is used. It still [is] to be determined who would even operate the facility. Even if we do operate the new hydro facility, there's no guarantee that Black Hills would be the entity to purchase it [the power] either. Based on that, it's simply too early to know if there could be [amy] cost savings because it's all feasibility at this point."
As hydro plants go, the Pueblo Dam station would be tiny. The Colorado-Big Thompson Project, a series of six power plants built by the Bureau of Reclamation between 1937 and 1957, for example, has a generating capacity of 760 million kilowatt hours per year, the Bureau's website reports.
The Pueblo station would generate only 22 million kilowatt hours, which could bring in about $1.2 million in revenue annually, according to information provided by the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District via Utilities.
Springs Utilities itself operates four hydro plants, three of which are small: Cascade Hydro built in 2010, less than 1 megawatt; Manitou Hydro build in 1905, 5 megawatts; Ruxton Hydro built in 1925, 1 megawatt, and Tesla Hydro at the Air Force Academy built in 1997, 28 megawatts.