Small hydroelectric dams bring clean power to utilities
Glenn Phillips is a water-power cowboy.
Faded, discolored pictures depict the Northport, Wash., man’s tale of building one of the first privately owned and operated miniature hydroelectric power plants.
They show him digging in a ravine. One shows him stringing cable for a tram that hauled materials. More chronicle how he built a power house at the bottom of a 140-foot waterfall.
Now 82 years old, Phillips displays each photo in hands weathered by hard work as his family harnessed nature.
“I knew there had to be an easier way to make a living than logging and raising cattle,” said Phillips, flashing a surly grin.
The Northwest is rich with water-generated electricity; big, wild rivers have been tamed by some of the world’s mightiest dams.
And yet the region is home to an impressive array of small projects, too. Some can fetch their owners $20,000 a month.
Washington, Idaho and Oregon are home to at least 95 of these miniature operations, according to the Foundation for Water and Energy Education, located in Spokane. There are hundreds more across the country. Together they form an industry worth tens of millions of dollars.
Most are owned by cities and companies.
Though water power is often criticized as harmful to the environment, Mike Johnson, a consultant on hydroelectric power across the globe, said that’s untrue.
“We’re not backing the water up. It’s run-of-the-river. It’s inflow equals outflow,” he said. Johnson owns Meyers Falls hydro plant, a historic operation in Kettle Falls, Wash.
No fish are harmed. No pollutants are released into the water that pulses through the Colville River.
Johnson’s power plant is on the National Register of Historic Places because it’s the oldest power plant west of the Mississippi River.
Johnson’s and Phillips’ year-round operations are at the base of waterfalls that cascade down nature-carved rocks into a creek or river. Spring is when the water roars. Fall is a low-water time, a chance to do maintenance work in advance of the winter buildup and spring runoff. Owners barely seem to mind any busy work in the serene surroundings framed in yellow, red and orange leaves.
Dressed in his usual work clothes – blue jeans, a sweatshirt and boots – Phillips explains he started experimenting with water-powered electricity when he refurbished an old turbine found at a junkyard to operate the irrigation system on his ranch spanning hundreds of acres.
With the energy source already spinning the wheels in his mind, the Korean War veteran’s curiosity grew when a neighbor shared that his grandfather had patented a turbine decades earlier that could handle much larger amounts of water.
So Phillips and his wife, Rosemarie, attended a seminar in Portland where “a man who represented some bankers” talked to people about starting up hydroelectric power plants. “I think the nearest bank was in Boston,” said Phillips, checking his wife’s eyes for approval as they stood in the kitchen of their modest home. “I think we were the only ones who borrowed money.”
In the early 1980s, Northwest banks didn’t take chances on such small water-power projects.
Almost two decades later, when Johnson bought the Meyers Falls plant from Avista Corp., the profitability of such projects was not such a mystery. Not to mention, Johnson had extensive knowledge about the systems. The mechanical engineer had manufactured turbines and advised folks on viable locations for using water to generate electricity.
He had spent 11 years in Indonesia consulting on small hydro-powered systems that helped put 50,000 people under lights.
Johnson won a competitive bid for the plant and started working on doubling its capacity.
“We did a lot of heavy lifting for the first five years to increase capacity and do upgrades,” Johnson said. Meyers Falls – originally built by Stevens County Power & Light Co. – now generates enough electricity for about 1,500 homes. “I sell everything this (power plant) produces to Avista and they redistribute it.”
Federal law requires utilities such as Avista to buy “green energy” such as water, wind and solar power.
The law “gives the little guy a chance,” said Steve Silkworth, wholesale contracts manager with Avista. “We have to buy the power whether we need it or not.”
Most of Oregon, Washington and Idaho’s electricity comes from dams. The seven largest produce 60 percent of the region’s power, according to the Foundation for Water and Energy Education. The 50 to 100 smallest operations generate about 3 percent of the energy.
Avista carries six contracts with small operators who produce fewer than 5 megawatts, Silkworth said. The contract lengths are set by the owners.
It took two years for Phillips to strike a deal with Avista, then called Washington Water Power.The Phillips’ journey began in 1984. “First we had to build a bridge,” said Phillips, pointing to the suspended wooden bridge that stretches over a ravine carved by Sheep Creek.
With grit and sweat, the Phillips family – with a little help from engineers and construction workers – built the head gates, blasted a trail through shale rock and constructed a tram to transport people and equipment up and down a 300-foot slope on steel tracks. The wood and metal platform uses a multicable system that can hold up to 20 tons. Heavy material and equipment takes nearly 30 minutes to travel from top to bottom, which required patience to build the cement-walled power house and install the guts of the hydro operation: turbines 5 feet tall with equally sized generators roaring beside them.
Near the end, the Phillipses realized they needed more money to complete the required surveys of the land and equipment. The hydropower plant had to pass inspection by 17 regulatory agencies.
The couple struck a deal with two of their four sons, Mike and Larry. The young men each invested $40,000, and the two remain involved in the business to this day and will take over the business when their parents call it quits.
Larry Phillips, accompanied by his dog Pooch, often helps his dad with the plant operations while Mike focuses more on the books.
The power plant became operational in 1986. The family has a 35-year agreement with Avista. The Sheep Creek Hydro Plant averages about $20,000 per month minus insurance and expenses. The contract expires in 2021, when Glenn Phillips turns 90.
“While it was all Glenn’s idea, it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the whole family,” Rosemarie Phillips said. Glenn added, “It’s easier than milking cows.”
Added Johnson: “We’re mom-and-pop operations. It’s a good business.”