Alta Ski Area conduit micro-hydro project

Friday, May 27, 2016

Alta Ski Area has proposed developing a micro-hydropower project along an existing pipeline, and hopes to benefit from a streamlined regulatory process.  Federal regulators have made a preliminary determination that the proposed Alta Micro-Hydro Project, in Alta, Utah, satisfies the requirements to be treated as a "qualifying conduit hydropower facility," which would not require licensing under the Federal Power Act.

Alta's proposed project would include a new powerhouse to be built along the existing underground 6-inch-diameter snowmaking water supply pipeline delivering water from Cecret Lake to the Wildcat Pump House, a new turbine/generating unit with an installed capacity of 75 kilowatts, intake and discharge pipes, and appurtenant facilities.  The unit is estimated to generate between 115 and 225 megawatt-hours annually.  There is no dam associated with the project.  Alta presented its micro-hydro project as part of a 2012 request to update its master plan, which the U.S. Forest Service accepted.

Ski areas with snowmaking capacity typically have existing pipelines and water infrastructure, coupled with significant vertical relief.  This can create opportunities to generate electricity using energy harvested from water flowing downhill through a pipeline, particularly if reducing system pressure (like a pressure relief valve) is otherwise needed. 

A 2013 law was designed to help small conduit-based hydropower projects by eliminating their need for a license or exemption from licensing issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  Section 4 of the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013 amended Section 30 of the Federal Power Act.  Section 30 now provides that a "qualifying conduit hydropower facility" -- one that is determined or deemed to meet defined criteria -- is not required to be licensed or exempted from licensing under the Federal Power Act.  These criteria include:

  • The conduit the facility uses 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 not primarily for the generation of electricity.
  • The facility is constructed, operated, or maintained for the generation of electric power and uses for such generation only the hydroelectric potential of a non-federally owned conduit.
  • The facility has an installed capacity that does not exceed 5 megawatts. 
  • On or before August 9, 2013, the facility is not licensed, or exempted from the licensing requirements of Part I of the FPA.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission administers this statute.  To start the regulatory process, on May 16, 2016, Alta filed a notice of intent to construct a qualifying conduit hydropower facility.  Alta supplemented its notice on May 20 to clarify that the project "will only operate when there is excess capacity available in the pipeline and when water is hydrologically available", generally after the winter snowmaking season, during spring runoff.  Alta also restated that the pipeline's main purpose will continue to be snowmaking.

Yesterday the FERC issued its notice of preliminary determination of a qualifying conduit hydropower facility for Alta's project.  That notice examines the project relative to each of the four statutory criteria, and then provides the Commission's preliminary determination:

The proposed addition of the hydroelectric project along the existing water supply pipeline will not alter its primary consumptive purpose. Therefore, based upon the above criteria, Commission staff preliminarily determines that the proposal satisfies the requirements for a qualifying conduit hydropower facility, which is not required to be licensed or exempted from licensing.
The notice also sets a 30-day deadline for filing motions to intervene, and a 45-day deadline for filing comments contesting whether the facility meets the qualifying criteria and providing an evidentiary basis.

Other recently proposed conduit hydro projects have been determined to be qualifying conduit hydropower facilities, including a Colorado project using an existing "ditch drop," a Castle Valley, Utah water treatment project, a California wholesale water agency conduit project, and a New Hampshire water works.

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