LOGAN — Utah's mountainous valleys present ideal conditions to harness the power of water already flowing downhill and turn it into environmentally friendly energy.
But one city's experience of trying to install a simple energy enhancement may leave others avoiding it altogether, according to a George Mason University-based research center that on Tuesday published a working paper using Logan as an example.
"Although it is tempting to point to one specific regulation as the root cause of today's impediments to small hydropower development, a federal nexus of regulation is the real problem," the Mercatus Center paper, written by four Utah-based authors, states.
It points to complex and costly requirements as a deterrent to further development of hydroelectric power, which the authors believe "is one of the most promising new sources of clean power."
"We have a strong interest in alternative energy options," said Ryan Yonk, an assistant professor of political science at Southern Utah University and policy analyst at Strata, a northern Utah policy think tank.
Yonk said the Logan plan to develop green energy by installing its own micro-hydropower system "seemed to make good sense" but ended up overdue and over budget.
While regulations are "rooted in the do-gooder mentality," he said, "they end up stifling the very same area they're trying to fix. We like to say that green regulations get in the way of green aspirations."
Such is the case in Logan, where city officials for years have sought for greener energy options in terms of solar, wind and other hydropower generation.
"We just have to make sure it is reasonable and economical," said Lance Houser, Logan's assistant engineer. "This one seemed most reasonable."
But installing a small hydropower turbine within an existing culinary water system pipeline to generate clean, low-cost electricity was anything but that, Houser said. Getting through the federal regulatory process, he said, was "an absolute nightmare."
"For being 'streamlined,' it was extremely painful for this size of project," Houser said.
The environmental assessment process and clearance, required by the National Environmental Policy Act and Federal Energy Regulation Commission, he said, cost more — in money and manpower — than the actual engineering and design of the power system, putting the city well over budget.
Logan city officials originally budgeted about $1.5 million for the project, but ended up spending $370,000 in 2010, $1,025,000 in 2011, and $1.4 million in 2012, for a total of about $2,795,000, according to financial documents obtained from the city. A portion of the funding came from the federal stimulus.
"The cost went up so much that now people look at it and say they'll never do it again, that it doesn't make any sense," Yonk said.
He hopes for looser regulations or, better yet, regulations based on the size of various projects so cities big and small can consider greener options and make them available to consumers who want that sort of thing.
Diversified options, Yonk said, could also lead to lower energy costs, but that fact has yet to be proved.
"This ought to be something we think about when creating regulations," he said.
The one-size-fits-all approach of the federal government, Yonk said, makes it tougher for a big dam project to get approved, but little projects have to go through the same onerous process.
Regulations in place also required Logan to use a U.S. vendor for its turbine, of which there was only one available that could make the size and type of turbine needed to accommodate Dewitt Springs, a naturally flowing fountain of pure water in Logan Canyon that provides about 70 percent of the city's water.
Houser said having just one bid didn't give the city much leverage when work began.
The project was estimated to help generate enough energy to power 185 local homes, a financial benefit of $67,284.06 per year.
"From a green energy perspective, it's a great idea. It's probably the most reliable form of energy you can find," Houser said. "It doesn't care if it's cloudy or sunny, and it doesn't rely on wind to work."
But even if it were to run continuously and at full capacity, which it doesn't because of varying flow rates during drought seasons, it would take the city more than 35 years to recoup its costs, according to the paper. That span matches a turbine's life cycle, which is about 30 to 35 years, Yonk said.
The city, which is glad to have the alternative/green power option up and running after years of paper and legwork, learned a lot of lessons that would make the process easier the next time around, Houser said, adding that he's already offered his candid advice to other cities seeking similar options.
But having used up its most ideal location for power generation, he said, Logan is not likely to go after such an ambitious project anytime soon.
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