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Congress eyes old dams as new power sources

Thu., July 12, 2012, 2:09 p.m.

WASHINGTON – The nation could get new electricity from old dams, saving time and money compared to damming new streams, under a bill that passed the House unanimously this week.

The Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and praised by one environmental watchdog group, would speed up the licensing of projects that retrofit existing dams and pipelines.

Building new hydropower dams can be harmful to rivers, Matthew Rice of American Rivers said, but “this bill considers more than just increased megawatts.”

Just 3 percent of the nation’s 80,000 dams are designed for hydropower, but almost 70 percent have the potential to generate electricity, according to a study of the U.S. Department of Energy. Different dams could be retrofitted to generate between 1 megawatt and 500 megawatts.

Even the biggest would be small compared to Grand Coulee Dam, which can generate almost 6,800 megawatts at full capacity.

In Washington state, there are 10 non-powered dams that could be retrofit to generate between 1 megawatt and 26 megawatts, the study shows. One is in Okanogan County and the rest are in Western Washington.

“It’s important to tap these unused resources,” said McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

If the Senate passes the bill, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would investigate if it is practical to issue a license within two years for hydropower development at non-powered dams and other water storage projects.

Rice said “a one-size-fits-all two-year process” is hard. “Hydropower projects that feature more complex resource issues often need more time to process.”

Boualem Hadjerioua, a researcher of the Energy Department study, agreed that using existing dams and reservoirs for another purpose is “environmentally sound and logical.”

Along with the two-year plan, the bill would no longer require that small dam hydropower projects under 10 megawatts and pipeline hydropower projects under 40 megawatts go through the FERC licensing process.

Chenfei Zhang, a student with the University of Missouri Journalism School’s Washington Reporting Program, serves as a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review.

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