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New University of Wyoming handbook explores feasibility of hydropower

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Riverton – Hydropower, explained Milt Geiger at Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days, “is harnessing the power of falling water.”

Geiger, the Energy Extension Coordinator at the University of Wyoming, spoke in Riverton on Feb. 12 about the economic feasibility of generating hydropower in Wyoming.

“It really isn’t difficult to harness hydropower. It’s harder to find out where to do it cost effectively,” he said.


In January, the University of Wyoming, in conjunction with Wenck Associates, Inc., released the Wyoming Small Hydropower Handbook.

“This guide came out in 2015 because permitting just got a lot easier,” noted Geiger.

The handbook covers the basics of small hydropower, evaluating potential resources, permits and licenses and information about the power market including possible incentives, grants and loans.

“We break it down into a simple layout and explain what a development process looks like,” he noted.

Small hydropower

Small hydropower is classified by systems that produce less than five megawatts, or 5,000 kilowatts, of rated capacity.

“It may seem small, but one megawatt can run 850 homes for a year,” he stated.

Micro-hydropower is classified by systems that produce less than 100 kilowatts of rated capacity, according to the Department of Energy.

“That is far more than someone would need to power his or her home, or even a bunch of center pivots,” he added.

A micro system would typically be used to offset personal energy costs, whereas a small system may provide an opportunity to generate power to sell to someone else, such as a utility company.

Understanding hydropower

“Hydropower is a product between head and flow, which are substitutes to each other within reason,” he explained.

Head is the vertical distance that water falls, and flow is the volumetric quantity of water, often expressed in cubic feet per second or gallons per minute.

“It would be difficult to harness just a little bit of water, even if it was falling a very long ways, and likewise, it’s difficult to capture all of the energy of the Mississippi River flowing over a one foot drop,” noted Geiger.


A preliminary site assessment examines the location of a potential system, including factors such as ownership rights and access.

“It is possible for non-water users to develop water power, but it is infinitely easier if it is actually the water user or direct partnership exploring this,” Geiger commented.

Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) rules grant preference to the existing water users.

“Distance to the nearest utility also matters. Thinking in ag terms, a producer must be able to get their product to market,” explained Geiger.

One example in Wyoming includes the hydropower plant in Buffalo, which is located on a diversion out of Clear Creek.

“They could generate a lot more energy at Tie Hack Reservoir, but it’s way up on Forest Service ground, a long way from a power line,” he noted.


In Wyoming, hydropower systems are regulated by BuRec and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

“If it’s a BuRec waterway, we go through the Lease of Power Privilege and anywhere else, we work with FERC,” he said.

New parameters were set up in 2013 to regulate this kind of energy concerning facilities and exemptions.

“Generally, if water is already in a conduit and we’re not doing something new with it, it’s already working water going to something else, and it will receive an expedited exemption,” explained Geiger.


Interconnection also involves working with the appropriate entities.

“If the system is 25 kilowatts or less of rated capacity, which is more than we would need for a home, Wyoming has a law that says the utility company has to let us interconnect,” he stated.

As long as there is a safe connection, the system can be connected to the grid and may create an incentive that allows the producer to bank electricity with the utility company.

“A lot of micro-hydropower systems can be ordered off the shelf, such as a three-kilowatt system, which includes the interconnect and inverter. The utility has to come in and check off on it, and we are all set,” Geiger commented.

Getting into larger small hydropower systems involves a Power Purchase Agreement.

“That outlines what the utility is going to pay for electricity, based on how much is produced, when it is produced and how it is produced. What matters is the seasonality and reliability,” he explained.


Producers may also be eligible for various incentives and financing programs, depending on the situation.

“Hydropower is a clean, renewable power and some markets will pay a premium for that,” added Geiger.

The Wyoming Small Hydropower Handbook includes theoretical examples for producers who are interested in looking into hydropower generation.

“We want to ask, can we produce it? Can we legally connect it? And can we sell it profitably?” Geiger said.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at

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