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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