New Jersey FERC license surrender and dam removal

Monday, August 15, 2016

U.S. energy regulators have accepted an application to surrender the licensee for a New Jersey hydropower project.  Earlier this month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission accepted Great Bear Hydropower Inc.'s application to surrender its license for the Columbia Dam Project, located on the Paulins Kill.  While the Commission decision to accept license surrender does not necessarily mean the dam will be removed, it represents a significant step toward letting the dam owner pursue dam removal if it wishes.  The case also illustrates tensions between hydropower development and dam removal, which remain active in U.S. policy discussions, and the consequences of state jurisdiction following FERC license surrender.

On January 15, 1986, the Commission issued a 40-year license for the construction, operation, and maintenance of hydroelectric facilities at the existing Columbia Dam.  The project includes a 20-foot-high, 330-foot-long concrete dam, originally built by a utility in 1909.  The site was sold to the state in 1955, after which the original electric generation was discontinued.  Following the project's 1986 licensing by FERC, the licensee added a powerhouse containing two generating units with a total installed generating capacity of 530 kilowatts.

The dam remains owned by the state of New Jersey as part of the Columbia Wildlife Management Area, and the licensee has been operating the project under a long-term lease with the state. But significant efforts are under way to improve water quality in the Delaware River basin.  The Nature Conservancy has described a strategy for watershed restoration that features the Columbia Dam's removal as a key component.  After the state and The Nature Conservancy entered into an agreement to remove the dam, the licensee ultimately agreed to surrender its license and remove only its hydroelectric facilities originally added to the dam, leaving the state to perform any future dam removal.

Because the Columbia Dam Project is subject to Part 1 of the Federal Power Act, its license could not be surrendered without approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  The licensee applied for surrender in October 2015.  The Commission granted that approval on August 10, 2016.

The FERC license surrender does not necessarily mean that the dam itself will be removed, although it does provide for decommissioning of the hydropower equipment.  The Commission accepted the licensee's proposal to remove the generating equipment, transformers from the powerhouse, and disconnect the electric connection to the local utility.  The license surrender will not be effective until the Commission agrees that the project’s facilities have been decommissioned in accordance with this surrender order.

As for the dam, the Commission noted, "It will be up to the state of New Jersey, the dam owner, to decide whether to remove the Columbia Dam, once the hydroelectric facilities have been decommissioned.  Dam removal would have some ecological, social, and economic benefits for the Paulins Kill watershed."  Following the effectiveness of license surrender, safety matters would primarily be state jurisdictional, and any dam removal would proceed primarily under state law.

While hydropower continues to play a significant role in the overall U.S. energy mix, with new and ongoing federal initiatives to increase hydropower generation, in some cases economics and environmental considerations may lead to the surrender of some project licenses.  This may be particularly true for some relatively small dams with fish passage issues facing relicensing in coming years.

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