Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members on Tuesday supported calls to speed up the hydroelectric permitting process, especially for adding generating turbines to existing non-powered dams and for pumped hydro storage projects that aren’t connected to a body of water.
A coalition of environmental, hydroelectric, tribal and river groups plans to give Congress a legislative package next month to reform the hydroelectric license and re-licensing processes, which are overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Malcolm Woolf, National Hydropower Association president and CEO, said during the Senate hearing.
"One of the tremendous resources we identified today was the dams, the thousands of dams that don't have any power generation, and I think we should look into some kind of expedited permitting process … to enable the country to move forward, tapping that resource," Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said during the hearing.
It can take longer to re-license a small hydroelectric dam than a nuclear power plant, Scott Corwin, Northwest Public Power Association executive director, told the committee.
Nearly 300 hydroelectric and pumped hydro facilities totaling about 16,000 MW have licenses that expire this decade, raising concerns their owners may decide to abandon their licenses instead of going through a lengthy regulatory review process.
The facilities make up more than 40% of the non-federally owned hydroelectric capacity in the United States, according to Jennifer Garson, acting director for the Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office.
"This represents a significant challenge for the industry, federal and state regulators, and stakeholders," Garson said.
On average, re-licensing takes 7.6 years to complete, with the process for many facilities lasting over a decade and for projects larger than 10 MW costing more than $10 million, Woolf told the committee. The process involves multiple federal, state and tribal agencies and FERC lacks the authority to enforce deadlines, he said.
"If we are going to grow our nation’s hydropower capacity, we must address the permitting process," Ranking Member John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, said during the hearing.
The issue is especially important for utilities deciding whether or not to re-license existing hydropower units, according to Barrasso.
"Streamlining the permit process is also necessary to promote the installation of hydropower turbines on some of these non-powered dams," Barrasso said. "The glacial pace of permitting is a significant barrier to private sector investment in hydropower."
There are about 90,000 dams in the United States, but only 3% of them produce electricity. Hydro dams total about 80,200 MW and produce about 7% of U.S. electricity, according to DOE.
The DOE has estimated that the top 100 eligible non-powered dams could produce about 8,000 MW, according to Woolf.
Woolf said Congress should establish a two-year licensing process for adding generation to non-powered dams, and require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop a nationwide strategy to expedite the development of non-powered dams.
There is "significant" private sector interest in developing non-powered dams, but "the permitting process is crazy," Woolf said. "You've got so many cooks in the kitchen, none of which have ultimate authority to issue permits."
Besides reforming the licensing and re-licensing processes, Corwin called for market changes so hydro projects can be paid for services they provide the grid.
"There need to be more comprehensive market mechanisms that can create accurate price formation to compensate hydropower for what it does naturally to support the system and to incentivize dispatch of hydropower in the areas and times of day it is needed most," Corwin said.
DOE is studying how much additional solar or wind capacity could be added at a national or localized level by having hydropower operate more flexibly to provide load balancing and other grid services, according to Garson.
Sen. King, an attorney who has worked with the hydro sector, said there needs to be strict deadlines in the licensing and re-licensing processes.
"This idea that it takes longer to permit a hydro project than the nuclear plant is absolutely preposterous," King said. "So a lead agency, one stop-shopping, a lead agency that can control the process, who can set reasonable deadlines, I think is incredibly important."