A federal agency has exempted a small hydroelectric project proposed by the San Juan County Historical Society from a tedious and expensive permitting process.
The action by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission allows the Silverton-based society to install an 8-kilowatt plant near the historic Mayflower Mill that overlooks the Animas River about a mile northeast of downtown Silverton.
“I just received the official letter today,” Bev Rich, San Juan County treasurer and chairwoman of the historical society, said Monday. “We were the poster child for the authorizing legislation as it went through Congress.
“Now we can crank up after being delayed, delayed and delayed with this FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) thing,” Rich said. “We hope to get the last wiring done before the end of the year to qualify for a $2,000 rebate.”
The turbine and its housing were installed this summer in anticipation of getting the federal go-ahead, Rich said.
Federal hydro project permitting regulations delayed the society’s plans until August, when Congress approved the Hydropower Regulator Efficiency Act to streamline the process for projects of less than 5 megawatts (about 625 times bigger than the Silverton plant).
The Colorado Small Hydro Association was the driver behind the change in policy, Rich said.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., co-sponsored the legislation in the Senate. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, co-sponsored the legislation in the House.
Power from the plant will provide electricity for the mill, which today is open for self-guided tours on a limited basis. A new one-mile pipeline from upper Arrastra Creek will provide water to power the mill.
The Mayflower Mill, which produced 1.9 million ounces of gold, 30 million ounces of silver and 1 million tons of combined base metals, was the single longest-operating ore mill in the San Juan Mountains. It is a National Historic Landmark.
The ore mill, which operated from 1930 to 1991 (with 12 years of down time), was donated to the historical society by Sunnyside Gold Corp. in 1998 as partial payment in a $20 million cleanup of several mines closed years earlier.
Electricity to keep the mill open for tourists cost the historical society $600 a month. It was an expensive venture because the mill was available to the public only three days a week, four months a year.
Rich said in August 2010 that it made sense to generate power 12 months a year and sell the surplus to San Miguel Power Co. The mill has two water rights on Arrastra Creek totaling a little more than 1 cubic foot a second.
“The hydropower industry has tremendous potential to stimulate economic growth and job creation,” Bennet said in a statement. “This commonsense bill removes unnecessary regulations to help small projects get up and running. We should continue to look for ways to cut through red tape and promote these types of clean, cost-effective energy sources.”
The Silverton hydroplant is the first in Colorado and one of the first in the country to win permitting under the new regulations.
The Colorado State Historical Fund put up $75,000 for the project, Rich said. The Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority contributed $25,000 and the U.S. Department of Agriculture $10,000.