Renewable energy has been a high priority in Washington, D.C. in the past three years, and one source of that energy that has been on the back burner—hydropower—is receiving much more attention in recent months.
Many Western farmers, ranchers and water managers are interested in installing low-head hydropower facilities in existing irrigation canal systems. There are many opportunities where canal systems that deliver water to farmers can be utilized to generate power from the energy provided by water falling short distances in those existing canal structures. For example, a recent project here in my hometown of Klamath Falls, Ore., called the “C-Drop power plant” is located on the embankment of an existing canal. This power plant uses the force of water dropping 22 feet from one canal (“A Canal”) to another (“C Canal”) to generate up to 1.1 megawatts. The electricity generated will reduce local farmer’s electrical costs and helps keep valuable farmland in production. The facility will not change diversions or timing of irrigation flows and will not impact fish or wildlife.
You would think projects like this would be a no-brainer. Under current regulations, anyone who wants to develop hydropower less than 5 megawatts (which would apply to virtually every single potential location within irrigation canals) can get an exemption from federal licensing requirements. However, the process required to get that exemption can cost $100,000 and take 18 to 36 months just to satisfy federal environmental permitting requirements.
For the last two years, the Family Farm Alliance and other Western water and power interests have worked hard to make it easier for Western irrigators to develop new low-head hydropower. New hydropower legislation has either been introduced or has advanced forward on Capitol Hill, and Obama Administration energy leaders are talking about the role that federal regulations play in tapping this proven clean energy source.
On July 9, the House passed a bipartisan bill that would streamline the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) process for permitting small hydropower and conduit projects. On June 19, the House Energy and Commerce Committee marked up H.R. 5892, the revised “Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2012.” This bipartisan bill would facilitate the development of small hydropower and conduit projects, and direct FERC to study the feasibility of a streamlined two-year permitting process.
The Senate companion to H.R. 5892, S. 629 (Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska), has passed out of Committee to the Senate floor for debate, although it is unclear when the Senate will consider it. Meanwhile, H.R. 2842—a bill introduced by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colorado) and passed by the House earlier this year—was recently heard by the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee.
Right now, it does not look like the Senate is likely to move any of the small hydro bills. That is sad because this effort should be a priority with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee—one that should share bipartisan support.
The legislation passed by the House of Representatives is a step in the right direction. The House bills reduce the number of regulatory hurdles to building low-impact hydropower projects—particularly smaller projects and upgrades to existing facilities.
Regulation and subsequent delays sometimes can cost as much, if not more than, the project materials. Reducing those unnecessary costs is critical.
It just makes sense.