Electric cooperatives could gain access to more renewable energy by investing in small-scale hydroelectric power to support the modernization of irrigation districts and public water systems, according to a new NRECA study.

“About 35 co-ops have already done small hydro projects, including some undertaken with irrigation districts,” said Jan Ahlen, director of energy solutions for NRECA’s business and technology strategies department.

“This study is an opportunity for more co-ops to help contribute to a knowledge base that could provide more renewable energy resources for co-op members and add value to assets vital to co-op-served farms, ranches and communities.”

There are abundant opportunities to deploy small hydroelectric power systems in rural America, Ahlen said.

“With more than 40 million acres under irrigation in the western United States, and much of the infrastructure long past its design life, co-ops may want to look into the energy potential of irrigation modernization,” he said.

White River Electric Association of Meeker, Colorado, used a Rural Energy for America Program—or REAP—grant to help finance a 160-kilowatt pumping station generation project undertaken with a local irrigation provider. Completed in 2017, the seasonal generation is expected to yield a 30-year payback, with the distribution co-op selling the generated power back to its supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission.

The co-op has been able to return some of the revenue from energy sales to the Miller Creek Ditch Company, which operates the irrigation canal system.

“We’re learned a lot about hydroelectric operations,” said Alan J. Michalewicz, CEO of White River EA. “We’re continuing to look for other opportunities that make sound economic sense for the co-op and our potential partners.”

NRECA has been working with the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories on research designed to explore the opportunities and barriers to deployment of rural hydroelectric systems under 5 megawatts capacity. With the help of a small grant from the DOE and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, researchers hope to identify potential challenges and solutions to advance such projects.

“Thousands of irrigation systems across the United States are at least 50 to 60 years old,” said Miles Hall, a contract stakeholder outreach specialist with DOE’s Water Power Technologies Office. “Erosion and seepage problems are fueling interest in replacing demand-based canals with pressurized pumping systems that can be equipped with turbines providing some hydroelectric generation capacity.”

Small hydro power could provide a secondary revenue stream for irrigation districts, particularly in the West, where upwards of 80% of aquifer discharges are committed to agricultural use.

Much of that water flows through unlined canals dug during the Post-World War II era that are subject to seepage and nutrient-loading, affecting water quality. These canals also consistently lose production capacity to evaporation.

“Irrigation districts run pretty lean in terms of cashflow. Normally the money for modernization projects comes from the patrons, so upgrades have to be done incrementally,” said Madden Sciubba, a science, technology, and policy fellow at Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. “Installing hydropower capabilities as part of modernization could provide revenue to help finance upgrades by producing a dependable revenue stream and opportunities to make other improvements.”

Researchers are also considering pumped storage and battery storage projects. Electric cooperatives and public power districts in some areas could pursue joint ventures with small public water districts considering adding hydroelectric equipment to their systems.

“There may be an opportunity there for extracting additional value by putting in a turbine,” said Ahlen. “If you can get renewable energy that is reliable and clean from existing assets, you can avoid some of the costs that might come from pursuing a completely new project.”

According to the DOE, an estimated 65 gigawatts of undeveloped low-impact hydroelectric power potential exists nationwide. That’s in addition to 12 GW of power that might be available if hydroelectric generation was added to 50,000 unpowered dams.

“Hydropower is a technology first used to produce electricity more than 100 years ago, and it is still evolving,” said Ahlen.

For more information on the DOE’s HydroNext initiative and the NRECA small hydro study grant, contact Jan Ahlen in NRECA’s Business and Technology Strategies department, at Jan.Ahlen@NRECA.coop.