George Wenschhoff wanted to put a center-pivot irrigator on his Meeker cattle ranch, but it was going to need a lot of electricity. So he decided to add his own hydropower plant.

How did Wenschhoff, 72, hit on the idea?

"You don't have to be too smart to know that if you've got water running downhill, you can make power," Wenschhoff said.

Still, turning flowing water into small hydropower projects is not easy. Even a tiny ranch project requires almost the same paperwork for a federal permit as the Hoover Dam.

A bill exempting small projects from the voluminous federal filings — co-sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver — passed the U.S. House of Representatives 422-0 in February.

Last year, a similar bill, also co-sponsored by DeGette, passed the House unanimously but died in the Senate. But this time may be different.

On March 13, companion legislation to the new hydro bill was introduced in a Senate committee with Democratic and Republican sponsors.

"We are always talking about streamlining government," DeGette said. "This is streamlining government."

The legislation would exempt projects of up to 5 megawatts from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requirements.

Getting rid of the FERC permit could open several hundred sites in Colorado with a combined capacity of 1,400 megawatts — equal to two power plants, according to the commission.

Small municipal and private hydro plants generate about 662 megawatts of electricity in Colorado, according to a Colorado State University study.

There are 200 megawatts of small projects that are likely to be developed, said Kurt Johnson, president of the Colorado Small Hydropower Association.

Across the nation, 60,000 megawatts of new hydropower capacity could be added by 2025, according to the National Hydropower Association.

To be sure, not every stream, irrigation ditch or pipeline can be turned to hydropower, said Brennan Smith, program manager for water-power technologies at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Phil Overeynder, utilities engineer for special projects with the city of Aspen, discusses the inner workings of the Maroon Creek hydro facility in Aspen
Phil Overeynder, utilities engineer for special projects with the city of Aspen, discusses the inner workings of the Maroon Creek hydro facility in Aspen last week. (Chris Council, The Denver Post)

In some cases, the "head" or force created by the water will not be strong enough to generate the power needed to make a hydro project pay.

"There is this balance between technology and economics," Smith said.

Tapping into power even when it's there, however, has been a challenge. Ouray Mayor Bob Risch said he has the bureaucratic scars to prove it.

Ouray had the chance to get a free 200-kilowatt turbine and its water supply comes from springs 4 miles above town. It seemed like a great idea for the city to build a hydro plant.

The city would have been eligible for an exemption from federal permitting, except that it needed to add 6,000 feet of new pipeline to carry the water to the turbine. That kicked the project into full FERC mode.

"It was horrendous," Risch said. "If we had to pay for it, it never would have happened."

FERC permitting can run from $10,000 to $30,000, which can be more than the cost of many projects, said Johnson.

FERC required reams of documents and for Ouray to contact about two dozen potentially interested parties, including three branches of the Ute Indian Tribe, Risch said.

It took 18 months to clear the hurdles.

"Many people I spoke with at the FERC would apologize," Risch said.

The bills in Congress would also create a conduit exemption for pipeline extensions.

Ouray's plant is up and running, and the turbine is used about eight months each year, saving about $1,000 a month in electricity costs, Risch said.

When Meeker rancher Wenschhoff started his project, he had a much easier time because the Colorado Energy Office, in August 2010, had signed a memorandum of understanding with FERC and was providing technical support.

"The agreement was that if we got all the paperwork together and submitted it at one time, FERC would promptly review it," said Tracee Bentley, deputy director of the Colorado Energy Office.

The energy office worked with Wenschhoff and even helped with his bank loan application.

"I think it took 60 days to get the FERC letter," Wenschhoff said.

It took about a month to install the pipes and turbine.

The compact system sitting in an orange prefabricated shed generates 23 kilowatts and costs $140,000.

Each year, the system saves $12,000 to $13,000 in electricity costs, Wenschhoff estimated, with any excess power sold to the local electric cooperative.

"It pretty much runs itself," Wenschhoff said.

The Colorado community that has perhaps taken to hydropower in the biggest way is Aspen.

Starting in the early 1980s, the city, which in 1885 was the first municipality west of the Mississippi River to use hydroelectric power, began building new projects.

"We went back to our roots," said Phil Overeynder, an engineer with the City of Aspen Utilities, who oversaw the hydro projects.

Aspen operates two hydropower plants, which provide 1.1 megawatts, and buys additional hydroelectricity from the Western Area Power Administration.

In 2012, the city agreed to buy power from a new hydropower plant being built in Ridgway.

Aspen gets 50 percent of its power from running water, and when wind is added, 75 percent of the city's electricity comes from renewable sources.

The reliance on fuel-free electricity has given Aspen among the lowest customer rates of Colorado's 54 utilities, Overeynder said.

The average 700-kilowatt-hour residential bill in Aspen is about $62.70, compared with an estimated $76.65 for an Xcel Energy residential bill, according to data from the utilities.

"Hydropower is dependable, and it can be less expensive," Overeynder said.

Mark Jaffe: 303-954-1912, mjaffe@denverpost.com or twitter.com/bymarkjaffe