"Small hydro" bill before Congress

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Today the full U.S. House of Representatives considers a bill to create jobs and expand production of clean and renewable energy by eliminating red tape on hydropower projects in some small canals and pipelines.  Sponsored by Rep. Scott Tipton of Colorado, H.R. 2842 is better known as the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act of 2011.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is a federal water management agency within the Department of the Interior.  The Bureau has built over 600 dams and reservoirs in 17 Western states, and is the largest wholesaler of water in the country as well as the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the western United States. The Bureau's 58 powerplants produce over 40 billion kilowatt hours annually, generating nearly a billion dollars in revenue for the federal government.

Beyond these traditional hydroelectric plants, the Bureau of Reclamation's infrastructure systems include canals and pipes holding water capable of producing hydroelectricity but which are not currently doing so.  H.R. 2842 would streamline the regulatory process and reduce administrative costs for small hydropower development at existing Bureau of Reclamation canals and pipes.  It would allow the Bureau to contract with water utilities or other small hydro developers to install up to 1.5 MW of electric generation equipment into an existing canal or conduit without triggering environmental review requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  It would also direct the Bureau to offer preference to water user organizations for the development of such projects under a federal lease of power privilege.

Some environmentalists have criticized the bill for relaxing environmental protections, although the House Natural Resources Committee found that the environmental impact of adding hydropower to these assets would be minimal to none because they existing man-made facilities  on disturbed ground.  If the bill passes, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that it could generate $5 million in additional federal revenues through increased hydropower production over the next decade.

Additionally, the bill could be seen as empowering small hydro projects, although its current scope is limited to projects using existing Bureau of Reclamation canals and conduits.  Nevertheless, if the bill is enacted following today's House action, it could represent a tip toward renewed small hydro development in the U.S.

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