City’s hydropower system pays for itself earlier than expected

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The City of Whitefish’s hydroelectric plant generates electricity from water before it passes through the water treatment plant north of town. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

Whitefish’s hydroelectric power system is expected this spring to finish paying for itself.

The City of Whitefish in 2012 reconstructed an old, abandoned hydroelectric generation facility at the city’s water treatment plant. The water for the hydro plant comes out of Haskill Creek before passing though the hydro generator at the city’s water-supply reservoir.

A $400,000 pre-payment from Flathead Electric Co-op helped fund the project, along with a $200,000 federal grant. Under the agreement with FEC, the co-op pre-purchased 6,650,000 kilowatt hours of power to be generated by the facility. At the time it was estimated that it would take up to eight years to generate the electricity to complete the agreement, but the pay-off is expected to occur roughly 15 months sooner than expected.

Public Works Director Craig Workman said the city has long been a proponent of energy conservation and utilizing clean energy to the greatest extent possible.

“This is up there on the top of the list of sustainable projects the city has ever done,” Workman said. “It has been a total success and it was paid off in less time than we thought.”

Workman said the hydro system fits in with the ideas in the city’s Climate Action Plan adopted in 2018.

“The success of the hydroelectric system has made us look at other possible places we could employ them,” he said. “It would be hard to find a place that would have the same output as this one, but we’ve looked at where else we could put one.”

The electricity generated from the hydroelectric system moving forward will be supplied back to the FEC grid and be paid for by offsetting the electricity requirements of the water treatment plant and the wastewater treatment plant.

Flathead Electric began accepting power into their grid from the facility on Reservoir Road in September 2012. The hydroelectric system generates between 35,000 kilowatt hours to 131,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per month depending on stream flows.

The original hydroelectric facility was installed at the city reservoir in 1983, but serious damage occurred to the equipment on two occasions. Within the first few years of its operation, debris entered the turbine and damaged the Pelton wheel. A new Pelton wheel manufactured in Anaconda was used at the Whitefish plant, but a lightning strike in 1989 or 1990 burned parts of the generator and put the facility out of operation.

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