Jun 29, 2017

When I was around 14 or 15, I started watching wind turbines getting shipped down I-84 to The Dalles, and I thought it looked really cool. I started researching wind energy and renewable technology, and I realized that my dad’s work with hydro for Middle Fork Irrigation District was rooted in renewables too. I quite literally grew up around this technology. 

Quote_Zach_DeHart_featured.pngFarmers and the irrigation districts that provide them water have been investing in hydropower in the Hood River Valley for 30 years. Farmers Irrigation District and Middle Fork Irrigation District, where my dad has worked for more than two decades, were among the first to start using existing pipes and canals to develop low impact, small-scale hydropower projects. We were already moving water out of the river for the orchardists, so why not also make power with it? The revenue from power generated by Farmers Irrigation District goes back into helping our farm customers become more water-wise and energy efficient, to projects that leave more water in the river for fish and improve habitat, and to reducing our company debt. It’s a win-win.

My job is to maintain the hydropower system and continually work to improve its efficiency. A project that results in 1-2 percent efficiency improvement can pencil out to thousands of dollars saved over the course of my career. That means more money for better repairs, more efficient pipelines and sprinkler systems, and more benefits for farmers, fish and the community.

I just liked the idea of renewable energy from the beginning, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So far, I’ve worked on solar and hydro. Eventually, I would like the opportunity to install one of each kind of renewable technology. The concept is the same across the board: Use nature to turn a generator, whether it’s a propeller blade or a water wheel. And that’s what I love about it - fundamentally, it’s so simple. 

After graduating from the Renewable Energy Technology (RET) program at Columbia Gorge Community College, I couldn’t find a job in Hood River, so I moved to Kansas to work on solar farms and then to Texas to be an electrician’s apprentice on the oil fields. It felt kind of hypocritical working on the oil fields after the RET program, but it was good training. When Jer Camarata, former manager for Farmers Irrigation District, called to offer me a job as a hydrotech, I was packing my bags and moving home a couple weeks later. 

The timing couldn’t have been better. When I started, I got to help build the first new hydro turbine in the Hood River Valley in three decades. I feel lucky to be back in the Valley. It isn’t easy finding good jobs out here, and I have a career. I have great benefits, a retirement plan and have already made my mark in this community, and I’m only 26. I’m getting married in a few months, and I know that not only can I provide for my fiancé and our 6-year-old son, but I can also support our skydiving activities in the summer months. It’s a solid start to our life as a family.

I don’t think people realize how personal renewable energy can be. They see industrial scale wind farms or dams on the Columbia and think, oh, that’s not me. But there are much smaller options for personal homes that can get an entire family completely off the grid – and minus a monthly power bill – without too much trouble. If more money was available for small-scale hydro, solar and efficiency upgrades, we could all be more self-sufficient, technology would be more readily available to businesses and homeowners, and we could move away from burning coal and using oil. Because of early investments in hydropower and efficiency projects, Farmers Irrigation District now produces 25 million kilowatt hours of clean energy per year, and we have been able to cut water use in half and save Hood River Valley farmers nearly $70,000 per year in electricity bills by eliminating the need for individual pumps. 

There are farmers across Oregon spending thousands of dollars per month on electricity and losing water out of old pipes and canals who would jump at the opportunity to modernize their systems – and that means more jobs like mine for rural Oregonians.