Going green: County adds $9M turbine to plant in Abiquiu

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By Kirsten Laskey

A roar of water filled the underground concrete structure at the Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities’ hydroelectric plant in Abiquiu. While the water surged forward, installation of a new low-flow turbine was also moving at a rapid speed.


A giant, cobalt blue turbine stood upright in the center of the powerhouse, a concrete structure that houses the turbine. Behind it was a generator covered with a plastic tarp.

The turbine, which was delivered earlier this month, is expected to be in operation by next March. Currently, workers are aligning the different pieces of the turbine for assembly.

James Alarid, the deputy utility manager, said the process to set up the turbine is going well. “It is proceeding on schedule,” he said. “It’s gone very smooth.”

In addition to the new low-flow turbine, the hydroelectric plant in Abiquiu also features two other turbines.

Julie Williams-Hill, public relations manager for the utility department, said the plant is built at an Army Corps of Engineers-owned dam. The corps, she said, releases water as need mandates. Sometimes the water is released so fast that there is more water than what the current turbines can handle. Or, water is released so slowly that the existing turbines can’t produce electricity.

The new low-flow turbine, she said, will able to generate electricity when the others cannot. “It can capture some of that lost electric generating capacity,” Williams-Hill said. “(The turbine) will help us increase electric generation.”

In fact, once in operation the new turbine should increase the plant’s electric generation capacity by 22 percent.

Additionally, the new turbine will also increase the plant’s renewable energy output and does not emit any greenhouse gases.

Williams-Hill said the county did a feasibility study in 2002 on the turbine before putting the project out for bid in 2006. The bid fell through, which was fortunate, she said, because when the project was bid again in 2008, it coincided with a stimulus grant to expand and improve hydroelectric power.

“It was like the grant had been written for us,” Williams-Hill said.

The county was awarded a $4.5 million grant, or 50 percent of the project’s cost, the total of which was $9 million.

Buying the low-flow turbine also pays off in other ways. Williams-Hill said when the Energy Policy Act was passed in Congress it allowed entities to get renewable energy credits but the facility producing the renewable energy needed to be built after 1999.

Since the Abiquiu facility began generating in the early 1990s, it didn’t qualify for the credits. The new turbine, however, will allow the county to receive energy credits, Williams-Hill said.

Because renewable energy is intermittent and depends on the sun, wind, water or other elements to be produced, renewable energy industries are allowed to sell a second commodity or an energy credit. When an energy credit is purchased, it ensures the buyer will receive renewable energy. The money, Williams-Hill said, goes back to the facility producing the energy.

Being eligible for energy credits not only benefits the county’s utilities department but also its largest customer.

Steve Cummins, deputy utility manager for electric production and distribution, said, “Our biggest customer, Los Alamos National Laboratory, is required to get a certain amount of its power from renewable energy, so that’s also a benefit for our largest customer.”

Although the new turbine will not impact the average household customer, Williams-Hill said a recent customer satisfaction survey showed that customers believe renewable energy is important.

Having the energy credits also allows the utility department to work out an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers. The corps will release water to optimize electric generation when they are able, and the hydroelectric plant will provide the corps with energy credits so that their facility will also offer renewable energy.

The agreement between the county and the corps was signed in June but the county cannot begin to issue the energy credits until  the turbine is in place and operational.

This is a big project for a small public utility department, Williams-Hill said. The department serves approximately 8,500 customers. So to be this kind of a power producer is unusual, she said.