Boom in FERC hydro relicensing

Friday, May 5, 2017

U.S. federal hydropower regulatory staff currently has a full workload processing original license, relicense, and exemption applications, as well as its compliance and dam safety work, according to testimony presented to the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Energy -- and this workload is expected to increase as many hydro projects face relicensing proceedings.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulates over 1,600 non-federal hydropower projects located at over 2,500 dams, under Part I of the Federal Power Act.  These projects collectively represent about 56 gigawatts of hydropower capacity, over half of the nation's total hydropower capacity.

The Federal Power Act generally requires non-federal hydropower projects to be licensed by the Commission if they: (1) are located on a navigable waterway; (2) occupy federal land; (3) use surplus water from a federal dam; or (4) are located on non-navigable waters over which Congress has jurisdiction under the Commerce Clause, involve post-1935 construction, and affect interstate or foreign commerce.  Licenses are generally issued for terms of between 30 and 50 years, and are renewable.

According to testimony presented to the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Energy on May 3, 2017, the Commission's relicensing workload "has started to increase and will continue to remain high well into the 2030s."  Between fiscal years 2017 and 2030, the Commission projects that about 480 older projects will begin the pre-filing consultation stages of the relicensing process.  These projects facing relicensing represent about 45 percent of Commission-licensed projects, and one-third of jurisdictional licensed hydropower capacity.

The testimony also notes that some of these projects may face different standards in a relicensing context than were considered when their current or original licenses were issued.  Many projects now entering relicensing were first licensed in the early to mid-1980s, following the enactment of PURPA but prior to enactment of modern environmental standards.

For example, the Electric Consumers Protection Act of 1986 directed the Commission, when issuing licenses, to give equal consideration to power and development, energy conservation, fish and wildlife, recreational opportunities, and other aspects of environmental quality.  This mandate may not have applied to a 40-year license issued in 1982, but would come into play during a relicensing case initiated in 2017.

The House Subcommittee on Energy is considering discussion drafts and several pieces of legislation affecting hydropower, including the Hydropower Policy Modernization Act of 2017; the Promoting Hydropower Development at Existing Non-Powered Dams Act; the Promoting Closed-Loop Pumped Storage Hydropower Act; the Promoting Small Conduit Hydropower Facilities Act of 2017; and the Supporting Home Owner Rights Enforcement Act.

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