Small-scale hydroelectric projects are receiving renewed interest as society looks for cost-effective ways to produce electricity using local, renewable resources. Depending on available sites and on what alterntative resources might be available, microhydro or small-scale hydroelectric projects can fit the bill. Even if you own a first-class site for a microhydro project, before you can build or operate your project, you need to understand what federal and state regulations may apply. Some small hydro projects are treated much like full-scale dam-based hydropower projects, while others (like small projects using existing conduits, pipes or canals) can get an easier regulatory path to approval.
A small hydro project proposed near Grace, Idaho illustrates some of these regulatory considerations, and the importance of understanding how regulators apply the rules. Grace is a town of about 1,000 people located in Idaho's Gem Valley. The Bear River runs through the valley on its course flowing out of Bear Lake, around the Bear River Range by Soda Springs, and then south through Grace into Utah's Cache Valley. In the early twentieth century, recognizing the area's water resources and topographic variation, a series of dams, diversion pipes and powerhouses were built along the Bear River to produce hydroelectricity. One side effect was that a stretch of river known as Black Canyon was largely dewatered, as an aqueduct carried the water around the canyon to a downstream powerhouse. Ultimately, Utah Power and Light (and then PacifiCorp) came to operate these assets, and chose to remove one of the dams, an aqueduct and one powerhouse in 2006 and 2007, and to provide some increased flows through the Black Canyon section.
There may be ways to generate hydroelectricity in Grace without diverting water away from the Bear River. Last month, a local farmer with interests in canals and hydro development proposed a new hydro project near Grace. The Gilbert Hydropower Project proposed to capture the flows of several natural springs and pipe this water about 700 feet to a turbine/generator unit. Currently, the water is partially used for pasture irrigation with the unused portion flowing into the Bear River; the developer proposes to install a 24‐inch diameter above-ground pipeline to send the water to a Pelton turbine attached to a 75 kW generator.
In its application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (docketed by FERC as Project No. 14367-000), the project developer requested an exemption from the licensing requirements of the Federal Power Act under the so-called "5 megawatt exemption" rule. That rule allows the Commission to exempt small hydroelectric projects with an installed capacity of 5 megawatts or less that: (1) are located at the site of any dam in existence on or before July 22, 2005, and that use the water power potential of such dam for the generation of electricity; or (2) use a “natural water feature” to generate electricity, without the need for any dam or impoundment.
FERC dismissed the Gilbert project's request for an exemption, noting, "Because [the] project would utilize the flows of a natural spring that travel through 700 feet of pipe to reach the proposed turbine/generator unit, it would neither be at the site of an existing dam nor use the flows from a natural water feature", and thus was ineligible for an exemption. However, FERC did invite the Gilbert developers to convert their exemption application to a license application, which the developers did earlier this month. The developers now have until June 18, 2012, to submit the additional information needed for a complete license application.
What's in the future for Grace, Idaho? What role could using nontraditional water resources such as springs play there or elsewhere in our energy future?