New law eases some hydro licensing processes

Thursday, November 1, 2018

A recently-enacted federal law will make it easier for hydroelectric project developers to secure a license for new hydroelectric facilities at existing non-powered dams.

U.S. rivers are home to thousands of dams, most of which impound water but don't generate electricity. A 2013 report suggested only 3% of the nation's 80,000 dams were used to produce hydroelectric power. In an effort to facilitate the development of hydroelectric facilities at some of these non-powered dams, Congress recently enacted the America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2018.

Title III of the Act relates to energy matters. One section of the Act extends the default term of preliminary permits for hydropower development from three to four years. The Act authorizes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to extend the period of a preliminary permit for up to four additional years, and to issue an additional permit under "extraordinary circumstances."

Another section of the Act speeds up the process through which the Commission evaluates proposals to develop "qualifying conduit hydropower facilities" and increases such a project's maximum installed capacity from 5 megawatts to 40 megawatts.

A third section of the Act requires the Commission to, within 180 days, issue a rule establishing an expedited process for issuing and amending licenses for hydroelectric facilities meeting defined criteria. These criteria require the "qualifying facilities" to be associated with an existing dam or other barrier operated for the control, release, or distribution of water for agricultural, municipal, navigational, industrial, commercial, environmental, recreational, aesthetic, drinking water, or flood control purposes, which as of the date of the Act's enactment was not generating electricity with Commission-licensed or exempted hydropower generating works. The Act also requires that the operation of these facilities must not result in any material change to the storage, release, or flow operations of the associated qualifying nonpowered dam.

The Act also includes provisions creating an establishing an expedited process for issuing and amending licenses for closed-loop pumped storage projects, and prescribing the considerations for setting the terms of new licenses for existing projects through the relicensing process.

The Act, which was introduced in the Senate as S.3021, was signed by President Trump on October 23, 2018, and became law the same day. The Commission has until April 2019 to issue the rules required by the Act.

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