Hydropower in the United States may soon expand thanks to recently enacted federal legislation. The Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013, signed into law on August 9, 2013, is designed to promote hydropower by streamlining the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's process for developing and operating hydroelectric projects.
The Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013 is predicated on the value of hydropower in providing renewable electricity - and on hydropower's estimated growth potential. Congressional findings in the Act include that "hydropower is the largest source of clean, renewable
electricity in the United States", producing about 7 percent of the nation's power and about 100,000 megawatts of capacity, and employing approximately 300,000 workers across the country. Yet only 3 percent of the 80,000 dams in the United States
generate electricity, highlighting substantial potential for adding
hydropower generation to nonpowered dams. According to one study, by utilizing currently untapped
resources, the United States could add approximately 60,000
megawatts of new hydropower capacity by 2025.
To promote the use of these "currently untapped" resources, the Act enhances and streamlines the regulatory framework for some hydropower projects. For example, the Act exempts certain so-called "conduit" hydropower facilities from the licensing requirements of the Federal Power Act. Conduit facilities generate electric power using only the hydroelectric potential of a non-federally owned conduit, such as a tunnel, canal, pipeline, aqueduct, flume, ditch,
or similar manmade water conveyance that is operated for the
distribution of water for agricultural, municipal, or industrial
consumption, and is not primarily for the generation of electricity. To qualify, conduit facilities must have an installed generating capacity that does not exceed 5 megawatts (MW), and must not have been licensed or exempted from the licensing requirements of Part I of the Federal Power Act on or before August 9, 2013. While qualifying conduit hydropower facilities are not required to be licensed
or exempted by the Commission, developers of qualifying facilities must file a Notice of Intent to Construct a Qualifying Conduit
Hydropower Facility with the Commission.
The Act also streamlines other regulatory procedures. For example, it amends Section 405 of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 to define "small hydroelectric power projects" as having an installed capacity that does not exceed 10,000 kilowatts. The Act also authorizes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to extend the term of preliminary permits for hydropower development for up to 2 additional years beyond the 3 years previously allowed under Section 5 of the Federal Power Act. It also directs the Commission to investigate the feasibility of a 2-year licensing process for hydropower development at non-powered dams and closed-loop pump storage projects.
The Commission is moving forward with the implementation of the Act. The conduit, 10-megawatt exemption, and preliminary permit processes are already underway. On October 2, 2013, the Commission will hold a workshop to launch its investigation of the feasibility
of a two-year process for issuing a license for hydropower development
at non-powered dams and closed-loop pumped storage projects.
Will the Act lead to the development of more hydropower in the U.S.? While the Act eases regulatory burdens on project developers and operators, the rate of project development is also driven by market forces. The intersection of regulations and these market forces will determine the addition of new hydropower capacity. Nevertheless, the reductions in regulatory burden and uncertainty appear poised to support the buildout of hydroelectric generation from previously untapped resources.