Engineer pursuing his vision

Scott Swanson

In 1984 Dave Harmon, then a bridge construction engineer for the Oregon Department of Transportation, helped one of his fellow workers rig up a miniature hydroelectric project in the guy’s back yard south of Salem.

“He had a little wintertime spring with a little waterfall and we built a mud dam for a weir and put in a 4-inch pipe and it produced enough power in the winter for three homes,” Harmon recalled. “He hooked up his neighbors.”

It wasn’t an end-all system and it didn’t produce enough power to run a washer or dryer, but it saved everybody on their electric bills. And it spawned an idea for Harmon.

Why not hook up similar small systems on local mountain streams?

Now 60 and recently moved to Sweet Home, Harmon is proposing to do just that on Two Girls Creek, a tributary of Canyon Creek, about 26 miles east of Sweet Home.

He’s in the process of trying to get permits to install a 20,000-foot pipe, most of it underground, from a weir that would be located near the mouth of the creek, just north of Two Girls Mountain. The penstock pipe would take stream water 1,800 feet down the mountain to a point near the junction of Two Girls and Canyon creeks where a powerhouse containing a turbine that would generate 5 megawatts of electricity, enough for 4,500 homes.

He’s formed a company called Pacific Green Power and has lined up investors to finance the $6 million-plus start-up cost, though he’s looking into the possibility of getting assistance from power companies and government agencies, since the plant would be certified as a “green” power producer.

“The reason I’m doing it is for green power,” Harmon said. “I think the hydro project for small energy is better than wind power.”

That, in fact, is one of Harmon’s selling points as he seeks buy-in from the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.

“I think a lot of people see that small hydro has very little impact on the environment,” he said. “We could produce a lot of energy if we harness several of these small streams around here. We could equal the output of Foster and other small dams we have around. That’s the idea.”

The Two Girls powerhouse would be largely buried in the ground near a USFS spur and most of the pipe will be underground, he said.

“”We’re going to blend it as much as we can into the terrain.”

He said, depending on precipitation, the plant could theoretically run all year, though a similar plant on Falls Creek shuts down during the summer.

“We don’t have a problem shutting down in the summertime,” Harmon said. “Some summers we will have to shut down. Other years, we may be able to run all year.”

The penstock, the pipe bringing the water down the mountain to the powerhouse, will be steel and poly pipe, ranging from 36 to 24 inches. He said all components of the project would be made in the United States, most of it in the Northwest “just because that’s what we feel is right.”

The turbine, which would be made in Everett, Wash., would be powered by a flow of water pressurized at a minimum of 1,100 pounds per square inch and, ideally, closer to 3,000 pounds per square inch, he said.

He said the completed plant would be operated by three full-time employees and the construction project will create 30 to 40 jobs for a year to 18 months. If all goes perfectly – agencies give their OK and all the reports get turned in on time – construction could begin next year, he said, but it’s more likely that it would start in 2013.

Harmon said he believes small electrical projects like the one he is proposing are a much better solution to Oregon’s energy needs than wind-generated electricity, which he said causes “all sorts of problems” for the grid.

“This stream can generate power 24 hours a day all winter long, when electric heat is going. It makes so much more sense, compared to wind projects.”

He said his stream project is the product of “a slow evolution” that started with the South Salem project, the bridge engineering work he did for ODOT and experiments he has conducted in growing algae to produce biomass for electricity generation.

He said he’s got plenty of experience in engineering the pipeline and weir for his project, but “the environmental part is new to me. I’ve been learning that and the federal and state agencies have been good, patient with me.”

He said he’s been exploring the back country with various county officials, looking for other streams that have enough differential in altitude between their sources and mouths that similar projects could be implemented.

The process is complicated and he said one of the biggest challenges is finding spots where fish, especially endangered winter steelhead, will not be impacted.

“I think it’s important to do as many of these low-impact hydroprojects as possible,” Harmon said. “I’m still looking at streams, trying to find spots. We looked for Two Girls for a long time. There has to be other creeks out there where we can do this again.

“I think we ought to produce all the electricity we can in a very low-impact way. This is a cheap, viable way to produce electricity. I think it ought to be used before we go look at other alternatives that aren’t as environmentally friendly.”