County poised for micro-hydro boom

Vern Spaur, center, and his wife Marti point out the simplicity of the 1870s technology, the Pelton Wheel, at the heart of their 21st-century micro-hydro pump to State Sen. Bill Hansell.

Ranchers Vern and Marti Spaur of Wallowa don’t expect to pay a power bill from Pacific Power for a very long time. They recently celebrated the installation of a second micro-hydro power plant that will provide power both for their ranch and their automotive business — and maybe produce enough to donate the excess to the low-income power program through Pacific Power.

The Spaurs have made a significant investment of their own money in addition to getting grants and incentives, but the two projects are expected to pay for themselves within four to five years.

Few ranches in Wallowa County could afford the full initial cost of small hydro, and that is where the funders come in.

The Spaurs’ first turbine cost $54,000, the second about $126,000. A big portion of the costs were spent on the electrical box and systems that allow them to both use electricity and transfer the excess back to Pacific Power.

The Spaur Ranch received $60,000 cash incentive from Energy Trust of Oregon and a $30,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America program.

The project was developed by Kyle Petrocine, renewable energy manager for Wallowa Resources Community Solutions; Matt King, renewable energy advisor for Wallowa Resources Community Solutions; and Wallowa Resources Executive Director Nils Chistoffersen. Local contractors (including Vern and Marti) built the installation.

As the turbines of two pumps are rotated by the flow of West Side Ditch water, the pumps create approximately 154,000 kilowatts of electrical power annually — enough to run irrigation, lights and heat for the farm and the SPS Automotive Repair shop and more. Then the water just keeps on flowing. It will flow another four miles, Vern Spaur said.

“It can be used again and again. I’m pretty blessed to live where I live and have plenty of water. In this case (hydro power) provides power for our entire operation. I feel pretty good about it because I have a pretty small (ecological) footprint.”

There are plenty of other ranches on down that four-mile stretch of ditch from the Spaur Ranch, and Vern Spaur considers himself to be just the first among the many that may be part of a micro-hydro boom in Wallowa County.

Irrigation systems are one good point of entry into micro-hydro power because the water in the ditch is free of fish. Channeling irrigation water through hydroelectric generators makes double use of it, and mountainous terrain means there are many candidates for project sites thanks to gravity flow.

At least 10 other Wallowa County hydro projects are either under consideration or in the feasibility phase, according to Jed Jorgensen, Program Manager for the nonprofit Energy Trust of Oregon, which was the primary funder of Spaur’s project.

Energy Trust has funded about 10,000 renewable energy sources over the last 15 years. According Jorgensen, assessment work is underway on the Westside/Poley-Allen ditches near Lostine as well as the North Prairie Creek Ditch near Joseph. Other piping and hydropower projects are being evaluated along the Alder, Hurricane and Ruby Peak ditches. Six additional stand-alone hydropower projects also are being assessed.

“From my perspective Wallowa County is special because there is a real concentrated amount of hydro potential in the county among irrigators,” Jorgensen said.

Wallowa Resources’ Christoffersen said the Spaur Ranch is exactly the sort of two-birds-with-one-stone project his organization was designed to promote.

“The vision is something we’re still proud of today,” Christoffersen said. “Vern and Marti Spaur are contributing in a broader way, not just to food production but to renewable energy.”

“I was blessed by the fact that I was made aware of Wallowa Resources and other avenues of financing,” Vern Spaur said. “I encourage other farmers interested in hydro to contact Wallowa Resources.”

Wallowa Resources can help ranchers and farmers apply to the Energy Trust of Oregon and other qualified sources for money to offset installation costs.

The work of EnergyTrust of Oregon is well recognized. In partnership with the Farmers Conservation Alliance, they have created an Irrigation Modernization Program that recently was awarded the 2016 State Leadership in Clean Energy Award from the Clean Energy States Alliance. That program receives support from Oregon legislators as well. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) said the program “reaffirms what we in Oregon have long known — our state is all about figuring out creative solutions that benefit both the environment and the economy.”

State Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Athena) made time to visit the Spaur Ranch for the unveiling of the second hydro project and to familiarize himself with what small hydro is doing in Wallowa County.

“I think out here in Eastern Oregon we have all sorts of opportunities like this,” Hansell said. “We’re going to find a cumulative effect that will be very beneficial. I’m really committed to this type of innovation.”

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