WESTERN SAN JUANS – Congress has finally found an energy source it can agree upon. Before federal lawmakers skedaddled for their August recess, they unanimously approved small hydropower-permitting reform legislation. The legislation clears the way for some 60,000 megawatts of new hydropower capacity to come online in the next decade, according to the National Hydropower Association.
The bills, H.R. 267, the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act, and H.R. 678, the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act, now head to President Barack Obama’s desk for his signature. Both bills passed unanimously and had sponsors from both parties – Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), and Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Wash.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
The new dual-track legislation will streamline and accelerate approval for non-controversial small hydro projects on existing infrastructure (such as dams, pipelines and irrigation ditches), and will allow many projects to qualify for exemption from Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licensing altogether, while also clearing regulatory barriers for small hydro projects that fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Reclamation.
“It’s really the biggest thing that has ever happened to the small hydro industry,” said hydroelectric consultant Kurt Johnson of Ophir, president of the Colorado Small Hydro Association (COSHA). Johnson has spent much of the past two years helping to shepherd the legislation from idea to reality.
“I can hardly believe it,” Johnson said earlier this week. “It has been a long slog, and was really touch and go before the recess.” He thinks a Denver Post editorial which appeared last Monday, urging Congress to pass the bill, helped push the legislation across the finish line.
“It put [the legislators] on notice, that these are not just a couple guys in a little shed in Ophir,” he said. “When national newspapers are paying attention, they really need to get on it.”
It would have been a true embarrassment, Johnson said, if Congress had failed to pass the legislation. “It’s rare in Washington DC to have a bill that creates jobs, increases clean energy, cuts red tape, and costs taxpayers nothing. It wouldn’t reflect well if they couldn’t get that done,” he said.
From the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant to the Gunnison Tunnel, the Western Slope of Colorado has a played a rich and compelling roll in hydroelectricity’s development. Ouray’s own Beaumont Hotel was the world’s first hotel to be wired with alternate current electricity generated by the Ouray Electric Light and Power Company (still in operation today as the Ouray Hydroelectric Plant), while the Camp Bird Mine was powered by AC piped over the mountains from Ames.
Yet as captivating as this history is, many argue that the region’s real wealth lies in its still untapped hydroelectric potential – a potential whose development will now be fully unleashed after being pent up behind burdensome federal regulations.
As an analogy, Johnson said, “Imagine if you had to get a permit from the feds to put a solar panel on the roof of your house.”
No one could be more pleased about the new hydroelectric legislation than Ouray Mayor Bob Risch. “I’m tickled to death to see this happen,” he said. “[The legislation] was so necessary for small hydro to proceed.”
Risch still groans as he recalls the regulatory hoops he had to jump through to get Ouray’s own micro-hydroelectric plant up and running. The simple grid-tied 20 Kw project, completed in 2010 and largely funded by a Governor’s Energy Office grant, utilizes an abandoned 6” water line [which once funneled water from Ouray’s municipal water source at Weehawken Springs, over a mile downhill to the now-defunct BIOTA bottled water plant] and a mix of purchased and donated equipment to generate just enough electricity to offset large power-sucking pumps at the Ouray Hot Springs Pool.
“The fact that the project was grid-tied triggered the FERC licensing requirement,” Risch recalled. “Had we not had a volunteer (me) agree to undertake the extensive licensing process, the cost of a consultant would have seriously endangered the economic feasibility of the project.”
Risch spent 18 months navigating FERC’s labyrinthine regulations trying to get the micro-hydro project properly authorized.
FERC tends to think in terms of large, high impact projects, and existing regulations are designed with this – not tiny projects like Ouray’s – in mind, Risch explained.
“They sent a list of 55 organizations they strongly encouraged us to contact as part of the notification process,” Risch recalled. He was eventually able to whittle the list down to 22 entities – “including Indian tribes, historical societies, and on and on,” he said. “Out of those, exactly one contacted us – the U.S. Forest Service,” which simply wanted to know if the project encroached on USFS land – it didn’t.
“That kind of a process does not work for little bitty project like ours,” Risch said.
Then there were the multiple public hearings and notices, and ensuing time delays. “We had to print the notices and then wait 30 days for comment, and then another 30 days just in case,” Risch recalled. “Things get drug out for years.”
Since the project was built on an existing conduit, Risch had hoped FERC would grant a conduit exemption, which would have sped up the process. But it turns out that the city had to add 300 feet of new pipe to bring the existing conduit across the river “and that 300 feet, on top of the 6,000 feet of existing pipeline, kicked us out of [being eligible for] exemption,” Risch sighed. “We had to go for a full license, same as if we were on the Columbia River.”
Risch recalls that the FERC staffers in Washington, D.C. “felt really silly” making him jump through all those hoops, but told him that they didn’t have a choice in the matter because of the way the regulations were written.
It’s that kind of inflexibility that the new regulations will root out.
Risch chalks the experience up to the price paid for being a pioneer. But now, as the City of Ouray contemplates future small hydro projects – like generating hydroelectric power from its water main – the streamlined regs will make it much, much easier to get from concept to reality.
“I’m glad we were able to play little role in promoting it,” Risch said of the legislation. “We were a poster child for the obstacles” that were inherent in the system.
In Telluride, meanwhile, the as-yet-undeveloped hydro component of the new Pandora Water Treatment Plant also stands to benefit hugely from the new legislation. “Pandora is exactly the kind of project that would be eligible for the bill,” Johnson said.
In terms of next steps, Johnson plans to help craft an implementation memo to make suggested recommendations “for how to implement the bill as rapidly as possible and simply as possible.”
He envisions a web interface, where a developer of a small hydro project could simply enter her name, address, GPS points, and a brief explanation of the proposed project. Click, and done.
“That would be a dream,” he said. “I have a long list of people who have contact me over the last number of years, with this or that little project, and I explain the complexity of complying with federal law and in most cases, the recommendation is, ‘Don’t do this now because the federal regulations will crush you. I’ve been advising clients to wait until it gets fixed. It will be fun to call them all back and say, ‘Remember that project we were discussing...?’”
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