Hydro experts describe bureaucratic issues to House panel

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power held a Sept. 19 oversight hearing on “Keeping Hydropower Affordable and Reliable: The Protection of Existing Hydropower Investments and the Promotion of New Development.”

This hearing was designed to highlight how existing federal and non-federal hydropower resources are compromised by litigation and regulation, while new hydropower projects face uncertainty and federal inaction.

“Although hydropower is the cheapest form of electricity generation our technology has developed, it has been held stagnant, while infinitely more expensive generation has moved forward, at huge expense, both to taxpayers and ratepayers. If you want to know why your electricity bill is skyrocketing, you need look no farther than these misguided but deliberate public policies,” said Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock, R-Calif.

“Our existing hydropower-producing dams are slowly being put to death by a thousand cuts. That status quo is simply unacceptable. Other developed countries, such as Canada and Sweden, embrace clean and renewable hydro-electricity and make it a national policy to protect this valuable resource. We must do the same, and if it takes additional legislation to do it, then we will pursue this option,” said full Commitee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash. “Legislation must also promote hydropower. Conservation and efficiency are important parts of our energy strategy, but they will not meet demand in the long-term. We simply need to tap more of our existing non-powered”

Leslie James, Executive Director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association, said: “Federal hydropower is a valuable clean, renewable resource that faces a number of challenges today. Those challenges include the need to balance competing interests, including requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and other federal law, to maintain the affordability of the resource, and to deal with hydrological challenges like the current drought affecting the Colorado River.”

PG&E witness outlines legislative ideas

Randy Livingston, Vice-President of Power Generation at Pacific Gas and Electric, said: “The cost and duration of the process to relicense an existing hydroelectric project can be just as cumbersome and complex as seeking a license for a new, un-built hydroelectric project. In both cases, the cost and duration associated with licensing is typically far greater than any other established electric generation technology.”

Livingston suggested that Congress should consider developing legislation on the following six principles:

  • Establishing a defined process at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to resolve issues arising from overlapping or conflicting authorities, or overlapping and conflicting proposed license conditions among federal agencies, as well as between federal and state agencies;
  • When a preliminary condition is proposed by an agency, the relicensing process currently allows a licensee to propose alternatives that would meet the resource objective, but be superior from a licensees’ perspective. That allows for trial type hearings on the preliminary condition. However, the process does not allow for any challenge of a final condition. Further, it does not require that the final condition resemble the preliminary condition or the outcome of the hearing;
  • Requiring the use of the same studies and data for both federal and state environmental analyses, including defining a disciplined schedule for all agencies and stakeholders to adhere to;
  • Licensees generally accept the authorities of the federal government when a hydropower project is built on federal land, and the ability of the agency overseeing that land to prescribe reasonable conditions to protect other beneficial uses. At times, PG&E has negotiated voluntarily for certain conditions to be applied on private land. But it does not believe that the agencies should have unilateral authority to condition private land associated with the project. It recommends that federal land management agencies with jurisdiction over federal lands affected by a hydropower project develop and propose the necessary and reasonable mandatory conditions and terms that are under their jurisdiction, consistent with their authorities, on federal land, and directly related to the project;
  • Empowering FERC not to adopt proposed license conditions that do not have a clear nexus with the project being licensed or any actual effect on federal reserved land; and
  • Directing FERC to develop more efficient and cost-effective licensing and relicensing processes that adjust the scope of the process to match the size and scope of the project impacts.

Long and winding project approval road described

John Grubich, the General Manager of the Public Utility District No. 1 of Okanogan County, Wash., described the district’s regulatory experience with the proposed Enloe Project, a 9-MW hydro facility at the existing Enloe Dam on the Similkameen River, near the Canadian border. In 2005, the district renewed its efforts to obtain a FERC license to restore the Enloe Project.

The district spent years working through state and federal agencies on this project, Grubich noted. Then on July 9 of this year, FERC issued a 50-year license for the construction of the Enloe Project. A request for rehearing of the license has been filed by a group of nonprofit organizations challenging the aesthetic minimum flow requirements similar to the challenge raised in the appeal of the project’s Section 401 Water Quality Certification. That rehearing is currently pending. The district is also still working on a right-of-way (ROW) authorization to be granted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Kerry McCalman, Senior Advisor for hydropower at the Bureau of Reclamation, testified that Reclamation’s operation, maintenance and replacement program continually looks for opportunities to upgrade and modernize assets through capital improvements. For example, Reclamation has replaced 20 turbines since 2009, yielding an approximate 3% efficiency increase at each affected unit, resulting in an additional 200 million kilowatt hours of annual generation.

Moving forward, Reclamation has identified an additional 30 plants that could potentially increase their annual generation by greater than 3% (some as much as 6.7%) through efficiency improvements (i.e. turbine replacements/refurbishments). In total, these improvements could result in an additional 337 million kilowatt hours of annual generation. Capital improvements have been scheduled for four of the additional 30 plants by fiscal year 2017.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.