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Published on August 16th, 2013 | by Silvio Marcacci

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New Hydropower Laws Could Add 60 GW Of Clean Energy To US Grid

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August 16th, 2013 by  

The one thing everyone working on energy issues in America can agree upon is non-existent energy policy action at the national level. But late last week President Obama signed two bipartisan bills that could create a major boost for US renewables generation from an unlikely source – small hydropower.

It’s kind of amazing these bills becoming law hasn’t gotten much attention, since they’re the first real energy legislation to pass Congress since 2009, and could ultimately create 1.2 million green jobs while adding 60 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable electricity to the grid.

These two bills, the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act and Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act, will streamline the regulatory process required to add new hydropower generation to existing dams or upgrade existing hydro generation resources, and could unlock the untapped potential of thousands of miles of waterways.

Hydropower’s Huge Potential

Hydropower may seem to be the under-appreciated stepchild of American electricity generation, but it generates 7% of America’s total electricity, and represents a whopping 56% of all renewables – more than all other clean energy sources combined.

Even though hydropower represents reliable baseload generation capacity that can balance out other renewables, it doesn’t create the same kind of excitement as solar or wind – perhaps because the potential for hydropower seems tapped out.

But a 2012 report from the Department of Energy underscored why overlooking hydropower’s potential was a mistake. 80,000 dams are in service across the US, but only 3% have installed generators. DOE’s report found America could create more than 12 GW of new generation capacity by installing turbines on 54,000 sites where they don’t currently exist and upgrading older generation technology with more efficient turbines.

Opening The Floodgates 

Part of the reason American hasn’t added much new hydropower generation is because of red tape, with even the smallest proposals taking years to receive approval. But that’s just the problem these two bills will help solve.

“These bills are an excellent step to unlocking the tens of thousands of megawatts of untapped hydropower capacity that can provide millions of Americans greater access to affordable, reliable electricity,” said Linda Church Ciocci of the National Hydropower Association.

The Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency bill modifies existing laws to streamline small hydro projects and add generation to existing dams and closed-loop energy storage through several steps:

  • Increasing the small hydro exemption to 10 megawatts (MW), up from 5 MW
  • Removing conduit projects under 5 MW from FERC jurisdiction
  • Increasing the conduit exemption to 40 MW for all projects
  • Giving FERC the ability to extend preliminary permits
  • Requiring FERC to explore a 2-year licensing process for non-powered dams and closed-loop pump storage

In addition, the Small Conduit Hydropower Development bill authorizes the Interior Department to contract out small hydropower development at Bureau of Reclamation facilities across the US, helping add capacity at government property and irrigation canals.

“By cutting unnecessary Washington red tape, this law gives hydropower developers the certainty they need to move forward with new projects on over 40,000 miles of federal canals throughout the West,” said US Senator John Barrasso (R-WY).

Bipartisan Energy Policy: A Novel Idea

Hydropower facility modernization efforts have been underway across the country for several years, but they were covered by DOE stimulus funds, and with finite funding comes finite projects.

But now that federal policymakers have finally worked together in a bipartisan way to identify and knock down barriers to private investment, American could be flowing toward a hydro-powered future. Just imagine the potential if Congress could agree on any other clean energy issues.

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About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate-focused public relations company based in Washington, D.C.



  • WVhybrid

    This law is good news. But I think the article exaggerates the scale of both power and jobs to be created. No doubt this law will allow many new projects – perhaps hundreds – to move forward, and no doubt lots of construction jobs – perhaps 10s of thousands – will be created as the new power houses and penstocks are built. The power equipment suppliers may have to add a second shift. And many tons of fossil fuels will remain in the ground thanks to this law.

    But 60 gigawatts and 1.2 million jobs, I don’t believe it. I’d be happy if 10% of the existing projects now stuck in the endless preliminary permitting process would become reality in the next 5 years, or if new projects would balance out the hydro projects that have been removed over the past 10 years.

    I hope I’m wrong, but I think more than a few snips of red tape are needed to boost the hydropower industry in the US.

  • Being reasonable

    This such a terrible puff piece with no discussion of the damage to local environments dams have caused. Hydropower is cool, but it is counter productive to destroy habitat. Are you folks just boosters or journalists. Please monitor your content.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Be reasonable.

      These dams are in. They are not new dams being proposed. Whatever damage these dams have done is done.

      We have a very major problem to solve. If we don’t get fossil fuels off our grids then we will do habitat destruction thousands, millions of times more severe than these dams have created.

      If we can convert some of the 80,000 existing dams to electricity producers we can cut back some on coal and natural gas.

      • Matt

        And while a small number of those dams might removed, most are for navigation and are not going away. So if they are staying why not let them contribute.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Some of the navigational dams have already been modified for generation.

          Then, there’s another use. Pump-up hydro. Any sort of dual use saves money.

  • stanson

    Structures blocking a river are called “dams” (no “n”). The word “damn” means a whole different thing.

  • Matt

    I said for years we are wasting so much energy in the eastern half of the country. We build damns along all the river flowing into the mississippi to keep the rivers open for traffic. But do nothing to convert that flow into power. Yes 50-75 years ago when they were built it might not have been cost effective. But for the last 20 the tech has existed. I glad to hear that we are finally going to make it happen. If you want to see what some off the “small” damn look like pull out a map and look along the Ohio, Missouri, Mississippi (every 25-75 miles). If you have kid, watching a barge train go through the lock is well worth the trip. Ok even without kids. They amount of water going across them is wild. Even the “feeder” river into the Ohio have flow control, smaller yes but still a lot.

  • J_JamesM

    Only 3% of American dams have generators attached?! That’s incredible, no wonder they needed this bill to fix it! I imagine most of them would still be unsuitable to generate electricity, but by God go for it wherever it’s available!

  • Marshall Harris

    Anything that it takes to reduce America’s dependance on fossil fuels, I am for it.

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