Hydropower facilities would get permits faster if the 2018 water projects authorization bill passes the Senate Wednesday — a rare inclusion of an energy title on the bill known for its transportation and drinking water projects.
After senators voted 96-3 to invoke cloture Tuesday night on the water resources development bill, the Senate will likely clear the bill as early as Wednesday, sending it to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature.
While the bill would authorize $6.1 billion in federal spending for Army Corps of Engineers projects and $4.4 billion for drinking water infrastructure programs, a title dedicated to water energy has hydropower advocates excited about the potential of sending more hydropower onto the grid through a streamlined federal approval process.
“First and foremost, the benefit is regulatory certainty,” said Justin Ong, a policy associate with Clearpath, a Washington-based organization dedicated to advancing conservative-based clean energy policies. “There are a lot of hydropower projects coming up on relicensing — about a third of the fleet — so as these projects come up to be relicensed, it’s really important that we reduce the amount of regulatory burden to accelerate a timely relicensing process.”
That regulatory certainty comes in the form of incentives for existing hydropower operators to make facility improvements ahead of their relicensing as way to ease the path to approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Current permitting structures make it easier for operators to wait to upgrade their facilities, leaving environmental improvement projects like fish ladders that direct threatened wildlife around churning turbines to wait until after the relicensing.
The water authorization bill would give operators credits for actions already taken before the relicensing as well as those required by the new license.
“Giving our utilities the flexibility to better plan ahead will keep our energy sources safe and save taxpayers money,” Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement about the hydropower provisions.
Water resources legislation this decade have only loosely touched on hydropower. The 2016 bill did not have any such measures, while the 2014 bill directed the Army Corps to look for opportunities to bring in private industry to develop existing federal dams for power sources.
Hydropower generated about 80 gigawatts of electricity in the U.S. in 2017, and a 2016 Department of Energy industry report concluded that there may be enough interest to increase that total to 150 gigawatts by 2050.
The bill's energy title would promote the development of those types of so-called conduit facilities, which generate electricity using water already being sent through irrigation canals or pipes to industrial sites, by requiring FERC to determine within 30 days whether a proposed project meets licensing requirements. The bill would also expand eligible projects from a five-megawatt cap to 40 megawatts.
The bill also would promote hydropower development at existing non-generating dams by establishing a licensing timeline for such projects that should wrap up within two years of submittal. The Energy Department has noted that only 3 percent of the nation’s existing dams are electrified, a number that could represent additional paths for states to meet renewable and clean energy mandates.
“In [Indiana’s] 8th Congressional District alone, there are six nonpowered dams that could be modernized to produce clean energy,” Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., said when the House passed the water projects bill in September. Bucshon’s legislation provided the basis for the nonpowered dams’ provision.
Similarly, the bill also would set a two-year licensing process for closed-loop pumped storage projects. That type of hydro facility acts almost as battery storage for renewables, using energy to pump water upstream during low-demand hours and releasing that water through turbines during high-demand periods.
To offset the costs of many of the bill’s provisions, it would direct the drawdown and sale by the Energy Department of 5 million barrels of crude oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve — a common piggy bank for offsets in recent years.
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