Federal energy regulators have issued Alta Ski Area a written determination that its proposed micro-hydropower project will not be required to be licensed under the Federal Power Act. If developed, Alta's project would be one of the first to generate electricity from a snowmaking water supply pipeline.
Most grid-connected hydropower projects in the U.S. fall under the Federal Power Act, and generally require a license or exemption from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The process of securing an original license or exemption for a new project can take years and have high costs. But under a 2013 law, some so-called "conduit" hydro projects -- using pipelines and other existing manmade water conveyances -- can be developed and operated without a license or exemption. The Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013 defined criteria for the Commission to declare a project to be a "qualifying conduit hydropower facility," and provided that such facilities are not required to be licensed or exempted from licensing under the Federal Power Act. Key factors include the use of a non-federally owned, 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. If the Commission determines that a project qualifies, it can be built and maintained without a FERC license or exemption.
Under the Commission's process for evaluating conduit hydro projects, the developer must file a notice of intent to construct a qualifying conduit hydropower facility. If the developer's filing demonstrates that the project meets the statutory criteria, the Commission will issue a notice of its preliminary decision that the project qualifies. Following a 45-day period within which others may contest the determination, assuming no adverse facts are uncovered, the Commission issues a letter constituting its written determination that the proposed project meets the qualifying conduit hydropower facility criteria.
Alta's course before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission followed this trail. In May 2016, Alta filed its notice of intent to construct the Alta Micro-Hydro Project. That notice and a supplemental filing described a project to tap the
existing underground 6-inch-diameter snowmaking water supply pipeline delivering
water from Cecret Lake to the Wildcat Pump House. Parallel to that pipeline, Alta would add a new powerhouse with a 75-kilowatt turbine/generating unit. Later that month, Commission staff issued a public notice that preliminarily determined that the project met the statutory criteria. After the 45-day contest period, during which no interventions or comments were filed, in July the Commission issued Alta a written determination that the Alta Micro-Hydro Project meets the qualifying criteria under section 30(a) of the Federal Power Act, and is not required to be licensed under Part I of that law.
The Commission's letter reminds Alta that qualifying conduit hydropower facilities remain subject to other applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations.
But the ability to develop a conduit hydropower project without requiring a license from the FERC will ease the project's regulatory path. So far, most projects that have qualified for the conduit hydropower program have been proposed by water districts. But as ski areas seek to align their operations with sustainability goals, adding low-impact renewable electricity generation may make sense for some. If Alta's micro-hydro project is successful, other ski areas with existing snowmaking or other water infrastructure over a sufficient vertical drop may follow suit by developing their own conduit hydropower projects.