It may soon be faster, easier and cheaper to implement small hydroelectric projects across the nation, thanks to bipartisan legislation unanimously passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday, July 9.
H.R. 5892, also known as the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2012, streamlines the federal licensing requirements for small hydropower projects. The bill surged through the House by a vote of 372-0 under so-called "suspension of the rules," typically reserved for non-controversial legislation.
“This is a big day for small hydro!” exclaimed Kurt Johnson, the president of the Colorado Small Hydro Association and principal at Telluride Energy, a small hydro development and consulting firm, when the votes came in.
Supporters from both sides of the aisle, as well as environmentalists and representatives of the hydroelectric industry, have embraced H.R. 5892 for its potential to accelerate clean energy development and rural job growth.
As noted by the online industry journal Hydroworld.com, the bill contains several measures that would "facilitate the development of hydropower and conduit projects through several common-sense reforms," including:
• Updating the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license exemption standard to streamline the development of more hydro projects;
• Giving FERC the option to exempt hydro projects with a capacity of less than 10 MW and conduit projects with capacity between 5 and 40 MW from the permitting process; and
• Allowing FERC to extend the terms of a preliminary permit for up to two years, for a total of five years, in order to allow a permittee sufficient time to develop and file a license application.
The bill was introduced by representatives Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Diane DeGette (D-Colo.).
Ouray Mayor Bob Risch has been one regional voice advocating for the H.R. 5892’s passage.
Risch spent 18 months and hundreds of hours in 2009 and 2010 navigating FERC’s labyrinthine regulations trying to get an innocuous micro-hydro project properly authorized in Ouray. The project became a poster child for why the new legislation was so necessary.
Now, as he contemplates a second, somewhat larger, micro-hydro project on Ouray’s water main, Risch says the city would “certainly benefit from the availability of a small, more focused licensing process.”
“It’s such a no-brainer,” Risch said Monday after the bill had passed. “Having a simplified process gives us encouragement to move those things forward. We definitely have a lot of untapped potential in our system.”
Johnson, too, has been a huge supporter of the new legislation. He testified in favor H.R. 5892 in May before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, and has been closely following the bill’s progress through the House in the weeks since. In June, the Committee on Energy and Commerce issued a report recommending its passage without amendment.
Johnson’s testimony appears to have made a big impression in Washington; his statements are quoted extensively throughout the report.
The new legislation’s successful passage could have a huge positive impact on exactly the kinds of projects that are Johnson’s bread and butter; 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.
But current federal permitting requirements for small hydro are time-consuming and costly, said Johnson, which has been a barrier to small hydro development for decades. “For smaller systems, the cost of permitting can exceed the cost of the hydro equipment,” he said.
The Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2012 solves this problem by creating what Johnson describes as a “regulatory off-ramp” from FERC permitting requirements for non-controversial hydro projects on existing conduits such as pipelines and canals which are less than 5- megawatts, and allowing more small projects to qualify for the exemption process.
The bill may also eventually result in a shorter FERC licensing process for certain low-impact hydropower projects, making it easier to convert some of the nation’s 54,000 existing non-powered dams. The Department of Energy recently found over 12,000 MW of untapped potential at such dams.
Now that they have won their battle in the House of Representatives, Johnson, Risch and fellow small hydro advocates across the state and nation will have to focus their efforts on getting companion legislation passed in the Senate and ultimately signed into law by the President.
Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) have already gotten that ball rolling, sort of. Their co-sponsored Hydropower Improvement Act of 2011 passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a voice vote in April of 2011. However, Johnson noted, their legislation was missing several crucial elements of the newly passed HR 5892, including the provision that eliminates burdensome FERC oversight for small noncontroversial projects.
“That regulatory off-ramp, to me, is the most important part the House bill, and it’s not in the existing Senate bill,” Johnson said. “My dream world would be [for the Senate] to pass identical legislation [to what just passed in the House]. It makes sense to pass the same legislation on the Senate side as in the House. Everybody supports it, its bipartisan and costs taxpayers nothing.”