Small Hydro, Big Opportunity

For the U.S. House of Representatives to agree on anything these days is unusual. For it to agree unanimously on a bill related to renewable energy may strike some as just short of a miracle. But in mid-February, House members voted 422-0 to approve H.R. 267, a piece of legislation aimed at streamlining regulations for small hydropower projects that tap some of the potential generating capacity available in the U.S.

Following passage, the bill moved to the Senate, which is expected to consider it later this year. If passed and signed into law, the bill would promote the development of small-scale hydropower and so-called conduit generation projects, which are powered by the force of water flowing in structures such as irrigation canals and water distribution pipes. It also aims to shorten regulatory timeframes for other low-impact hydropower projects, such as adding power generation to existing nonpowered dams and developing closed-loop pumped storage, which can help to balance intermittent renewable resources such as wind and solar. Under the current license approval regime, project developers have to wait years for approval. Such regulatory lag can be deadly to smaller-scale projects.

“There’s incredible potential right now,” said Cherise M. Oram, a partner in the Stoel Rives law firm and vice president of the National Hydropower Association (NHA). “The industry believes there have got to be ways to meet existing regulatory standards without taking so long, especially for small projects.”

The trade group’s view is that developers should more easily be able to add power generating equipment at existing dam structures when no incremental environmental impact is expected, said Jeffrey A. Leahy, NHA’s director of government affairs. “There are no tremendous additional environmental impacts, so why go through the same environmental process” as new construction, he asked.

Small is beautiful as the industry focuses attention on developing what could be up to 12 GW of hydro generating capacity across the U.S.—provided regulatory reform that has been recognized as needed for years becomes a reality.

The current licensing process for a project 50 MW or smaller can be daunting. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) exercises licensing authority, but the path to federal licensing involves a lengthy application process that may include environmental impact assessments, endangered species and water quality evaluations, and lengthy consultations with state agencies and tribal organizations, with no single decision-maker in the process.
Once a FERC license is obtained, the developer of a project at an existing federal lock or dam must repeat the application process to win approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Bureau of Reclamation, two federal entities whose jurisdiction extends to water resources that include locks, dams, navigable waterways, and related infrastructure. Power generation historically has fallen low on their list of priorities, superseded by uses such as commercial navigation, flood control, and recreation. By the time a hydropower application wins approval from one of these entities, the initial FERC license requirement for the start of construction may have expired.

The net effect has been to dampen small hydro generation development and drive up its cost. And it’s precisely among small-scale developments that much of the potential exists to expand hydroelectric generation in the U.S.

Before there were large-scale wind farms and thin-film rooftop solar, there was hydro. Indeed, the first engines of the Industrial Revolution were driven by water power, a use that today might be labeled “distributed generation.” The ancient Greeks made use of “Archimedes’ screw,” a machine historically used for transferring water from a low-lying body of water into irrigation ditches that is being reexamined as a potentially modern power generation source.

In the U.S., 100,000 MW of installed capacity accounts for about two-thirds of the nation’s renewable electricity and 6.5% of total generation. Hydropower enjoys even more widespread deployment outside of the U.S. Top producers, according to the International Energy Agency, are led by Norway, with hydro providing nearly 98% of generation, and Brazil, where it provides roughly 78%. And although China only provides 17% of its total generation from hydro, its 22,500-MW Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest hydroelectric facility. Large impoundment reservoirs such as Brazil’s Itaipú and China’s Three Gorges garner a lot of headlines, but the majority of hydroelectric capacity is much smaller in scale.

In the U.S., at least, much of the focus on new hydro capacity is tied to water supplies that include existing reservoirs and man-made conduits, said Rick Miller, senior vice president of renewable energy services at HDR Inc. Many small-scale hydro power projects can connect directly to the local power distribution network, eliminating the need for significant transmission capacity. “The small stuff is very much a distributed generation technology similar to distributed solar,” he said.

To read the full article on POWERmag, click here.

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