Small-Scale Hydropower Provides Renewed Hope for Energy Policy

Catherine Cumming, MJLST Staff Member

As 2015 begins, many worry that the Republican majority in both the House and Senate will adversely effect energy policy over the next few years. With a scheduled Senate committee hearing and vote this week on the Keystone XL pipeline and pledges to “delay or derail the Obama administration’s clean air proposals,” these worries are justified. However, hydropower, the United States’ largest renewable energy resource provides hope for U.S. energy policy through bipartisan legislature and industry aimed at harnessing small-scale hydropower on existing infrastructure.

In 2013, the legislature unanimously passed the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act (H.R. 267) and the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act (H.R.678). H.R. 267 was passed in an effort to streamline the Federal Energy Reserve Commission’s (FERC) regulatory process and promote the development of small-scale hydropower projects. H.R. 267 and H.R. 678 “hit a rare bipartisan sweet spot” because they “shrank federal bureaucracy” and increased the potential for renewable energy production through the utilization of existing infrastructure. H.R. 678 was passed to expedite “small hydropower development at existing Bureau of Reclamation-owned canals, pipelines, aqueducts, and other manmade waterways.”

While proponents of hydropower are pleased with the Act, many, especially small-scale producers, are looking for more from the Republican-controlled legislature. The bills and their legislative history focus heavily on the number of unutilized dams in the U.S. as well as the potential for micro hydropower production. While the bills are helpful in increasing the development of small-scale hydropower, further legislature is needed to ease the regulatory process. In a recent NPR story on hydropower legislation, Kurt Johnson, head of the Colorado Small Hydropower Association, described the bills as “a kitchen knife gently cutting the government’s red tape, when what is really needed is a machete.” However, even with a Republican controlled House and Senate, taking a “machete” to FERC’s regulatory process is unlikely. This February, FERC’s amended regulations conforming to the bills become effective, easing the regulatory process for qualifying small-scale hydropower facilities.

Despite recent reform to the hydropower regulatory regime and bipartisan recognition that hydropower is an underdeveloped resource, 2014 showed a shift in hydropower and energy policy. Traditionally, hydropower has been the United States’ largest renewable energy source, but in 2014, annual non-hydropower renewable generation usurped hydropower generation for the first time. In a recent report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected decrease of 4.4% in conventional hydropower generation, but a 5.1% increase in non-hydropower renewables, including wind, solar, and geothermal. The 2014 removal of the Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State highlighted another shift in hydropower, as large-scale hydropower projects and their externalities are under scrutiny. As a result of this heightened scrutiny and the potential for unutilized infrastructure on America’s waterways, the hydropower industry and legislature is looking to implement smaller, noncontroversial projects.

Though hydropower generation decreased in 2014, the legislature recognizes that there is tremendous growth potential for hydropower in America’s future. In fact, the new Chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senator Lisa Murkowski, is on the record for calling hydropower an “undeveloped resource.” Senator Murkowski’s statement is supported by many recent studies, which indicate the potential for increased hydropower generation and job growth in the United States. In addition to its potential for the development of new, clean energy generation and jobs, small-scale hydropower legislation provides renewed hope for energy policy in a Republican-controlled legislature.