Bill eases regulations on hydropower projects

McMorris Rodgers’ measure speeds up licensing process

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers says hydropower is back, and Congress seems to agree with her.

Federal legislation sponsored by the Spokane Republican that would speed the licensing process for some dams and promote energy production in irrigation canals reached President Barack Obama’s desk last week without a single dissenter on Capitol Hill. McMorris Rodgers described the bill as a “first step” in reintroducing hydropower – thought to be tapped out and difficult to boost without affecting the environment – as a viable renewable energy source.

“I think it’s exciting to see what the potential might be,” McMorris Rodgers said.

Easing licensing requirements, processed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, became a priority for McMorris Rodgers last year after the Department of Energy reported just 3 percent of the nation’s dams with energy-producing potential contained water turbines. Adding energy production by retrofitting the largest 100 dams in the country could boost the nation’s production enough to power 3.2 million more homes, the department said in a study.

“The report showed you could double hydropower without building a dam,” McMorris Rodgers said.

That finding brought to the table environmental groups, including activists at American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation nonprofit that helped draft the legislation. The law exempts dams producing fewer than 10 megawatts of energy from the federal licensing process (up from its previous threshold of 5 megawatts) and proposes a faster, two-year timeline to license facilities selected for retrofitting.

Few dams targeted for retrofitting in the 2012 report were in the Pacific Northwest, which has a long history of hydropower construction. Of the 31 Spokane County dams listed in a statewide inventory, 26 were built before 1990, and the final concrete in the country’s largest energy-producing dam, Grand Coulee, was poured in central Washington in 1942.

But one of the proposed sites lies within the Okanogan County Public Utility District, though there are currently no plans for retrofitting. Dan Boettger, director of regulatory and environmental affairs with the district, praised McMorris Rodgers and said the law is a “very, very significant success story.”

“In the end, it’s our owners that pay for these projects,” Boettger said. Fewer licensing hurdles have the potential to lower rates to the customer, he said.

The law’s largest effect in the irrigation-heavy farmlands of Central Washington and North Idaho could be a licensing exemption for so-called “conduit” projects, which place energy-producing components in existing waterways like irrigation canals and sewer lines. Previously, those projects were subject to the same licensing standards as dams if their energy output hit a certain threshold. New technologies make such projects more feasible, McMorris Rodgers said, and give the Pacific Northwest the opportunity to attract inventors and new businesses through the promotion of hydro energy.

“It’s because of formidable, clean hydropower that we’ve attracted some of the businesses we have,” McMorris Rodgers said. A study by the National Hydropower Association, another of the bill’s contributing authors, said powering up the existing dams could create up to 700,000 new jobs nationwide through 2025.

The law does not, however, investigate the feasibility of running infrastructure to connect these existing dams to the power grid, and there’s no indication of the immediate effect the bill will have on dam retrofitting, McMorris Rodgers said. Still, the overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress has her optimistic about the future of hydro.

“There’s a real desire to continue to address some of the hurdles and some of the challenges that hydropower faces,” McMorris Rodgers said.

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