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Renewable Energy Series Part 2: Hydroelectric Power in the San Luis Valley

Interview with: Mark Jacobi, Facilities Manager at Valley View Hot Springs

Article by: Isabel Lisle, SLVEC Communications Manager

Date: April 5, 2023

Natural Hot Rock Pond at Valley View Hot Springs overlooking the San Luis Valley

In the 1970s, Neal Seitz and then Terry, his future wife, moved onto the property which now boasts a full hot springs rustic resort complete with lodging, camping and pools where visitors can “immerse themselves in nature while connecting personally with a cycle of sustainability” (OLT, 2023). At the time, the innovative couple envisioned creating a place for guests that didn’t rely on fossil fuels to power any buildings. They built an A-frame structure over the creek with a plywood paddle wheel that rotated in the flowing water moving an axle with a big wheel that connected to smaller wheels by fan belts. The belts rotated an automobile alternator at speed that then generated DC power. This simple way of creating electricity sent direct current to their light bulbs and also ran a tape player. Terry and Neal’s vision lives on at what is now known as Valley View Hot Springs, safeguarded and stewarded by the Orient Land Trust for the preservation of the springs and the rich wildlife habitat that surrounds them. Today, all of the facilities at Valley View Hot Springs run entirely off of hydroelectric power generated by the newest iteration of Terry and Neal’s inspired renewable energy system built in the 1990s.

As the San Luis Valley begins to think about transitioning to more renewable energy sources, it’s important to consider some of the successful projects already underway. This week, Mark Jacobi, Facilities Manager at Valley View Hot Springs near Moffat Colorado, speaks with the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) about the history, function, and design of (perhaps) the only, “Micro-Hydro Class”, (less than 200 KW), hydroelectric power plant in the Valley.

Mark explains the process of generating power from the water that flows from underground springs high up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. First, he says, all of the water on the property ultimately converges at a collection box. The water is filtered, then sent through a 9,000 foot long, 12” diameter pipeline, where the water drops 540 feet in altitude. This drop creates a pressure head of 232 pounds per square inch (psi), which then pushes a rotating water wheel called a Pelton wheel. This pressurized flow can be modified remotely through the manipulation of a “spear valve”. It’s this force that turns an alternator which in turn generates electricity that conveys back up to the Hot Springs. After the generator building, the water flows through a culvert that sends the water to a meandering stream system and then to a reservoir. The reservoir gets the water to water tanks for cattle and feeds irrigation pipes. In order to protect and enhance the downstream wildlife habitat, Valley View Hot Spring partnered with the National Resource Conservation Service NRCS to create and protect aqua-habitat for the Rio Grande Chub and Rio Grande Sucker. To do this, they added 9,000 feet of channel back into another area of the stream that meanders down the hillside for an eco-ethical, “no net loss”, to offset the original 9000 ft. pipeline. This in turn created 2 more miles of habitat for these protected fish.

Orient Land Trust Hydro-Electric Power Plant

The energy from this process produces from 34 to 65 kilowatts of electricity every second, depending on the prevailing water flow of the moment, (46 KW as of this writing). It powers 19 total units on the property, including guest cabins, a dorm, a hotel style lodge, private staff buildings, the Welcome Center, two bath houses, and vehicle sites that guests can plug into. The electricity powers property light bulbs, stoves and ovens, washers and dryers, the computer system, electrical baseboard heat, plug in carts, and hot water for showers. The infrastructure on the property only requires roughly 23 kilowatts of this energy typically, so the spare energy is directed to back up heating element loads that are used to bump up the temperature of the water for two man made soaking pools. In theory, they could send this extra electricity to the rest of the San Luis Valley, but this would require a significant guarantee of insurance and more infrastructure. Mark mentions that Orient Land Trust is lucky to have access to all of the water rights in their drainage which makes a project like this much less problematic.

Orient Land Trust Hydroelectric Sauna

The organization has been working on other alternative energy projects to mitigate environmental impact on the property. Warm geothermal water with a temperature of around 96 degrees actually circulates through the concrete floors of most of the buildings in the Village, radiating a constant warmth, and insulation keeps that heat inside the buildings.

In addition, the new bath house/ kitchen that was built on their 760 acre Ranch parcel sends human and kitchen waste to a new septic system that captures the methane gas and pushes it up through water-sealed funnels to pressurize and feed a 2 burner cooktop and eventually a hot water heater. OLT pioneered the legalization of this alternative sewage treatment in Saguache County.

The buildings at Valley View Hot Springs are run on electrical power generated entirely from gravity-pressurized water. Hopefully, this ingenuity and creativity can provide a guide to inspire other renewable energy projects around the Valley. It’s the ultimate vision of Neal and Terry that propelled an off grid project like this to exist. We must remember the power of visioning to create change as we continue to think about the entire Valley being able to support itself completely off of renewable energy. We have the tools, we just have to envision it, collaborate, and make it happen.

Orient Land Trust soaking pool

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