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Local energy independence

Letter from Dennis Felmlee

Energy – February 2009 – Colorado Central Magazine


Our local water conservancy district could lead the nation in the solar production of electricity and hydrogen. A new administration is going to Washington, dedicated to gaining energy independence for the United States. Therefore it is time for the San Luis Valley to consider our own energy independence, and that of the state of Colorado.

The Valley could provide all of the electricity needs of Colorado, as well as potentially providing enough hydrogen to power the entire nation’s domestic auto fleet. And a public, rather than private, entity could direct all profits to the citizens of the Valley, rather than to a handful of out-of-state investors.

A great deal of interest has recently been generated about the possibility of solar production of electricity in the San Luis Valley. Among the recent developments: this spring, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), rated the San Luis Valley as being the best area in Colorado for solar power; a solar monitoring station has been erected near Monte Vista. A task force reporting to Governor Ritter said that there are 2,400 sites in the valley for a 100 megawatt concentrating solar power plant; Xcel Energy completed an 8.2 megawatt solar plant near Mosca in 2007; the SLV County Commissioners Association is considering the establishment of an SLV Power Authority.

A number of steps have been taken at the state level to bolster alternative energy development statewide and for the San Luis Valley. With the passage of Amendment 37 in 2004, Colorado became the first state through citizen initiative to mandate renewable energy. Colorado’s growing political and economic commitment to renewable energy is evidenced by several recent Acts:

In 2007

HB 1281 Raises the 10% renewable energy standard required by Amendment 37 to 20%.

SB 246 Establishes a $7 million Colorado Clean Energy Fund.

HB 1150 Establishes the Clean Energy Development Authority.

In 2008

HB 1160 Creates fair and uniform rates for homeowners and businesses for the excess electricity produced by their solar, wind, or geothermal energy systems.

HB 1164 Encourages the Public Utilities Commission to consider large-scale solar power plants.

HB 1350 Enables local governments to provide lower interest loans to Coloradans making clean energy and efficiency improvements to their homes.

To date, all of the focus has been on the generation of electricity. As we look to the future, we must also consider the production of hydrogen. In February 2003, President Bush announced details of a $1.2 billion initiative to make hydrogen fuel competitive for powering vehicles and generating electricity. “We can change our dependence upon foreign sources of energy. We can help with the quality of the air. We can make a fundamental difference for the future of our children…. Hydrogen fuel cells represent one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era,” he announced.

Likewise, President-Elect Barack Obama stresses the need for national energy independence and has promised that it will be among his primary objectives.

Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity which can be used for household use or as an automotive fuel. The only emission from fuel cells is pure water.

There is no question that the hydrogen economy is coming, and with recent advances in technology and efficiency, it is coming sooner rather than later. This is where the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District (SLVWCD) could become a major player.

Hydrogen can be most efficiently produced by electrically splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. Two items that the San Luis Valley has in abundance are sunlight and water. The sunlight can generate electricity and any excess power can then be used to create hydrogen from water. The hydrogen can then be used in fuel cells at night to continue the generation of electricity, though with lesser efficiency. As the nation gradually accepts hydrogen as its principal automotive fuel, the San Luis Valley could become the foremost producer of this clean energy source.

This plan will require the ownership of water rights and applications to the Division III water court for change of use from irrigation to hydrogen generation. The conservancy district is well versed in both the acquisition of water rights and in change-of-use applications to water court. The district could, in fact, become the SLV Power Authority that the county commissioners envision.

Colorado water conservancy districts have a long history of providing electricity. The Mancos, Florida, Grand Valley, and Dolores water conservancy districts, among others, all have the ability to generate electricity from their reservoirs.

Most, if not all, of these districts have been assisted with financing by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWR&PDA). Although the Authority has never been involved with either photovoltaic power generation or with hydrogen production, it is reasonable to believe that they would be interested in such a project. The authorizing legislation for the Authority states that a beneficial use of water includes, but is not limited to, domestic, agricultural, industrial, power, municipal, navigational, fish and wildlife, and recreational uses.

Under the Water Revenue Bond program, the CWR&PDA can loan up to $500 million for eligible projects without a joint resolution from the Colorado General Assembly. The Water Revenue Bond program is specifically designed for those projects which do not conform to the Authority’s standard loans. A $500 million solar/hydrogen project in the San Luis Valley could supply most, if not all, of the power requirements for the state of Colorado.

If the SLVWCD were to develop the financial, legal, and physical framework for solar generation of electricity and hydrogen, then as the nation moves toward a full-scale hydrogen economy, the San Luis Valley will be ideally positioned to provide a major portion of this vital fuel. As a public entity, the conservancy district would be able to return profits from both electricity and hydrogen to the citizens of the San Luis Valley. These profits are potentially enormous. I urge the district to give this proposal serious consideration.

Dennis Felmlee

Post Scripts

About Dennis Felmlee: “I am a retired public servant, having first served as the groundwater specialist for the Colorado Division of Water Resources in Alamosa, then as the manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. I also owned a successful water rights consulting business until 2007, when my wife Holly and I joined the Peace Corps. We are now serving in Romania, where I am an environmental consultant for a regional environmental agency.”

Dennis Felmlee may be contacted at: or

If you wish to contact the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District about this proposal, their e-mail is:

The members of the Board of Directors are:

Member – County

Mike Prentice – Rio Grande

M. Dee Greeman – Alamosa

Doug Messick – Rio Grande

Charles Griego – Alamosa

Robert Felmlee – Saguache

Charles A. Lavery – Alamosa

Karla Shriver – Rio Grande

Richard Davie – Rio Grande

Darius Allen – Alamosa

Randall K. Palmgren – Saguache