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Water and electricity: A powerful mix

Denver Water uses a hands-on approach to teach water pros about a fast-flowing renewable energy source.

Joel Zdechlik, water distribution manager at Denver Water, has co-taught a course on hydropower for more than 20 years.

Joel Zdechlik, water distribution manager at Denver Water, walks into a classroom, sets down a binder weighing more than 10 pounds and powers up his 600-slide presentation — a start that could scare away even the most dedicated student. But this isn’t your typical class.

Instead, it’s the first day of an intense, 12-week course on hydropower for 20 students from Denver Water, Northern Water and the city of Boulder — a session Zdechlik has co-taught with local electrical engineer John Cowdrey for more than 20 years.

Zdechlik got his first taste of hydro in 1989 when he spent two years working as an assistant caretaker at Williams Fork Reservoir, home of one of Denver Water’s seven hydroelectric plants.

When a new hydroelectric facility was built at Hillcrest in the early '90s, Zdechlik became the primary operator — a facility he still helps operate remotely today from Denver Water’s water distribution operations center.

Zdechlik has seen hydroelectricity become a water industry standard over the years.

“We can use renewable energy to offset our energy costs, while at the same time decreasing our carbon footprint,” he said. “It’s a win for Denver Water, our customers and the environment.”

Denver Water’s hydroelectric plants generated more than 68 million kilowatt hours of electricity in 2016, enough to offset 91 percent of the energy used by Denver Water's facilities that year.

Some of the electricity produced is actually used to power various Denver Water’s pump stations and treatment plants, but most of it is sold to Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which means dollars back to Denver Water and ultimately savings for our rate-payers.

Joel Zdechlik (center) talks to students about the hydro facility at Gross Reservoir before touring the power plant.

According to Zdechlik, being knowledgeable about hydroelectricity gives water industry pros an additional marketable job skill, but in-depth training is difficult to find — and that’s what draws students from across the state to his class.

“The course attracts students with different backgrounds from Denver Water and various outside utilities, so it’s interesting to see the unique perspectives they bring,” Zdechlik said.

But it’s not all bookwork and lectures. Lessons in safety are best taught in real-life settings.

“We’re talking about electricity and water — not two things you typically want in the same place,” Zdechlik said. “It’s crucial students get hands-on experience to see how the technologies and systems work, while also understanding the importance of electrical safety and what to do in case an emergency arises.”

Students tour the Boulder hydropower complex, Gross Reservoir and Hillcrest, where they can operate hydropower plants in different scenarios.

Garret Miller oversees hydro operations at Roberts Tunnel, which carries water under the Continental Divide from Dillon Reservoir to Denver Water’s South Platte River collection system.

It’s a job Miller says he couldn’t do without Zdechlik’s class.

“The training helped me understand all the moving pieces necessary to create hydroelectricity, like head pressure, turbine speed, magnetic fields and line voltage,” he said.

“The classroom is where I learned everything about hydro, but the facility tours were where it really all came together and made sense,” Miller said. “We got to see how to deal with potential problems like adjusting turbine speed, what to do if there’s low oil pressure, or operating the facility during an electrical outage.”

Students learn about the hydroelectric plant at Hillcrest, which is operated remotely from Denver Water's water distribution operations center. Students have an opportunity to practice troubleshooting the system, getting hands-on experience with a real hydro plant.

Nate Deveaux, water treatment operator at Denver Water’s Foothills Water Treatment Plant, doesn’t operate the plant’s hydro facility, but still completed the course for a better understanding of the principles of hydro.

“I enjoyed learning more about best practices in operating a hydropower facility efficiently and safely, which helps me see the bigger picture and how what I do at Foothills helps provide water to our community,” Deveaux said. “The hands-on approach allowed us to diagnose problems in real-time, which isn’t something you can truly experience from classroom settings.”

According to Zdechlik, it’s this experiential learning that sets Denver Water’s course apart from others.

“The training is important not just for Denver Water employees, but for building a strong understanding of hydropower operation and safety across Colorado’s water utilities,” Zdechlik said. “If we can share our knowledge about hydropower with other water utility employees, it benefits the industry as well as the entire community.”