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Hydropower Legislation Flies Through Committee


The Hydropower Improvement Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate on March 17. The measure passed the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, less than a month after it was introduced.

The next step: A vote by the full Senate.

Meanwhile, hydropower advocates have turned their attention to the House, where they hope to have a companion bill introduced in a matter of weeks.

Driven by demands for more clean energy and faced with new information about the nation’s hydropower potential, lawmakers in both parties appear bent on approving a bill this year that hastens the development of more hydropower, the largest and most reliable form of renewable power.

“Hydropower is already the nation’s largest source of renewable electricity generation and accounts for approximately 300,000 jobs,” said Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association. “With the right policies in place, hydro can create 1.4 million more jobs and add 60,000 MW of clean energy by 2025.”

A new study by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory shows that the U.S. could add 12,600 MW of renewable power capacity to the grid by adding hydropower to 54,000 existing dams. Of the 84,000 dams in the U.S., only 3 percent are used to generate electricity, the study found. Most of that potential – 8,000 MW – is concentrated at 100 dams in the south and Midwest.

The committee’s swift approval of hydropower legislation mimics a newfound interest in the development of additional hydropower in the U.S.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, hydropower projects representing more than 80,000 MW of new capacity are pending before FERC, up from 30,000 MW two years ago.

“Historically, most of our work has been relicensing,” said Ann Miles, director of hydropower licensing at FERC. “Now, over a third of our work is new construction.”

Bill Smith, a regulatory specialist who has been helping hydropower developers navigate the arduous licensing process for 36 years, was one of 574 hydropower professionals who attended the National Hydropower Association’s 2011 Conference, held earlier this month in Washington, D.C.

Citing the conference's record attendance, the white-bearded Smith said he hasn’t seen this much interest in building more hydro capacity in the U.S. since the hydropower boom of the late ‘70s.

“The excitement I see at this conference is like what we had back in ’79, when everyone wanted to do something,” Smith said.

In addition, several state and federal agencies have signed new memorandums of understanding, which have led to a lot more cooperation in licensing and permitting new projects. In fact, Smith said one of his projects received a license in just six months.

“Not every one of them are going to go that smoothly, but I see a much better trend in licensing,” he said.

 The Hydropower Improvement Act would establish competitive grants for adding generation equipment to non-powered dams, adding capacity to existing hydropower facilities, and efficiency improvements to existing plants. The bill also urges regulators to consider a two-year licensing process for hydropower projects at existing non-powered dams and closed-loop pumped storage projects.    

Russell Ray is senior editor of Hydro Review magazine. Russell has 11 years experience as an energy journalist, covering the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma and the growth of solar and nuclear power in Florida. He served eight years as the energy reporter for the Tulsa World. He held the same position at the Tampa Tribune for two and a half years before joining Hydro Review in 2009.

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