GARDINER – Other than having to scrape up $1 million, a recent Yellowstone National Park energy project was a win-win deal.
On Wednesday, park managers proudly unveiled a micro-hydropower generator that supplies enough electricity to power up to one-third of the headquarters buildings at Mammoth Hot Springs.
Their pride stems from the fact that the hydropower is created using the community’s water supply. No dams had to be built, and no water had to be diverted from natural streams.
“The nice thing was that everyone was behind it, from the park to NorthWestern Energy,” said project manager Peter Galindo. “It just took a lot of work to get there.”
Construction on the project started in 2010, but many knew it was possible decades ago.
Water treatment plant manager Ralph Jerla said Colorado School of Mines students used to visit the park starting in 1984 and take water measurements to use in their hydropower system designs.
“We’ve had the designs for a long time – we just needed a million dollars,” Jerla said. “I said when this was finally built, I’d retire. But I still have six years to go.”
With the system just waiting to be built, Galindo was able to land a $1.1 million grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The project uses water that is already piped from Indian Creek to a man-made pond that is the Mammoth water-supply reservoir.
The system diverts water from the water-supply pipe at its lowest point before it reaches the pond. The water has enough force after rushing downhill that it can turn the 4-foot-diameter turbine, which turns the freezer-sized generator. The water then ends up in the water-supply reservoir just as it did before.
When the maximum amount of water pushes through the pipe, the generator produces 230 kilowatts or enough power to light 100 homes.
During the winter, stream flows are at their lowest, and the generator produces less power. But Mammoth Hot Springs also uses less power in the winter when the park receives far fewer visitors.
The system connects directly to the NorthWestern Energy grid, rather than going straight to park buildings. So Galindo had to negotiate a contract with the energy company to get credit for the power he produces.
The contract will provide a savings of between $75,000 and $80,000 a year for the park.
Deputy Park Superintendent Steve Iobst said the project fit in well with the park’s strategic plan for sustainability, developed last year. Future projects may include solar power upgrades and additional hydropower projects, but the Mammoth hydropower project will be the biggest.
“This situation was unique because it had an existing gravity-flow system,” Iobst said.
Mammoth Hot Springs used hydropower when it was built in the early 1900s. Now the community has come full circle as it again turns to the power of water.
The project also brought Galindo full circle. One of his first jobs was working on hydropower for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Galindo couldn’t help smiling as his gaze swept the new digital power gages.
“Isn’t this great?” Galindo said. “This is just the greatest thing for me.”