WASHINGTON, D.C. – A bipartisan bill that seeks to streamline the federal licensing requirements for small hydro projects around the nation got new wings this Tuesday, when the House Energy and Commerce Committee agreed to advance the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013.
Authored by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) and championed by small hydro proponents right here in the Western San Juans, the bill seeks to help facilitate the development of new hydropower projects across the country by reducing red tape and streamlining the permitting process. If the bill becomes law, all hydroelectric projects under 5 megawatts on existing pipelines would be exempt from strict and costly federal permitting requirements.
“It’s hard to overestimate how huge this bill is for the small hydro industry,” said Telluride-based small hydro advocate Kurt Johnson. As Johnson testified on the bill’s behalf when it was first introduced last year, the cost of permitting for small hydro projects often exceeds the cost of the infrastructure itself.
Johnson often bumps up against this problem. He is the president of the Colorado Small Hydro Association and principal at Telluride Energy, a small hydro development and consulting firm.
The new legislation’s successful passage could have a huge positive impact on exactly the kinds of projects that Johnson specializes in; most of his clients simply seek to take advantage of existing infrastructure, including dams, pipelines and irrigation canals, to create a small steady stream of green electricity.
However, current one-size-fits-all Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permitting requirements for hydroelectric projects are time-consuming, costly and unnecessary for small installations, said Johnson.
“If the government required homeowners to get a federal permit before installing a rooftop solar panel, there would not be a small solar industry in the U.S.,” Johnson said. “The reason we don't have a thriving small hydro industry in this country is because of federal permitting requirements, which have been crushing the small hydro industry for decades. H.R. 267 cuts away all that regulatory red tape – which will provide a dramatic boost to the U.S. small hydro industry."
From Ames, Bridal Veil Falls, and the Ouray Hydroelectric Plant to the Gunnison Tunnel and the M&D Canal, the Western Slope of Colorado has a rich and compelling hydroelectric history. Yet as rich as this history is, many argue that the region’s real wealth lies in its still untapped hydroelectric potential.
Hydropower is the largest renewable electricity source in the United States, and according to industry experts, new hydropower development has the potential to create 700,000 new jobs over the next 14 years. It is a form of power that makes particular sense in places like Colorado where water and gravity consort in high places.
If signed into law, Johnson said, the bill would save communities wishing to develop new small hydroelectric projects thousands of dollars in permitting costs.
The Town of Telluride, for example, could stand to benefit substantially from the new law as it develops a planned hydroelectric component to its new Pandora water system. The City of Ouray already has one licensed micro-hydro project which offsets power usage at the Hot Springs Pool, and would like to install others along its water main which plummets into town from its source at Weehawken Spring several miles up the Camp Bird Road.
“It’s such a no-brainer,” Ouray Mayor Bob Risch said of the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act last July. “Having a simplified process gives us encouragement to move those things forward. We definitely have a lot of untapped potential in our system.”
HR 267 is the next generation of a bipartisan bill introduced by Congresswomen McMorris Rogers and DeGette last spring. The legislation was developed after extensive discussion with interested stakeholders, and passed the House last July by a vote of 332-0, but failed to make it to the floor of the Senate and so the process must start all over again.
“We were hoping the Senate could find 10 minutes to pass the same bill last year, but they were preoccupied with the fiscal cliff,” Johnson said. He is keeping his fingers crossed that the bill will pass the House with similar support this time around.
“Based on last year's outcomes, it is expected that the Committee will approve the legislation and that the full House will quickly approve the bill under ‘suspension of the rules,’ an expedited process to move non-controversial legislation,” Johnson said. “Then we hope the Senate will move with similar alacrity. But even with noncontroversial bills such as this one, the Senate is the great unknown.”
Johnson said the National Hydro Association is currently looking for a champion for the legislation on the Senate side.
Things looked good for the bill in the House, as it made its 2013 debut on Tuesday. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R–Michigan) said he intends to get the bill up on the House floor as quickly as he can. “And I’ll be walking over to the Senate to see if we can’t get them moving this along to the President’s desk.”
As it wends its way through Washington D.C., hydropower will also be front and center in the State of Colorado this year. A global conference on the topic takes place in Denver in July 2013.
“The entire global hydro business is coming to Denver,” Johnson said. He hopes that with the successful passage of the proposed legislation, “We can have a nice story to tell about Colorado’s leadership in small hydro.”