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Hydropower backers reach 'big dam deal' to reform licensing, boost tribal input


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Hydropower backers reach 'big dam deal' to reform licensing, boost tribal input

  • Author Molly Christian
  • Theme Energy

Hydropower industry groups have reached an agreement with Native American tribes and conservation organizations on improving the licensing process for U.S. hydroelectric projects, a proposal they say will better protect the nation's rivers while ensuring that tribes have long-sought authority over their lands and waters.

Easing the hydropower licensing process could also support U.S. clean energy and climate goals, with hydropower facilities able to back up intermittent renewable resources. The proposal, however, needs approval from Congress to take effect.

"This [proposal] is a big dam deal, if you want to use a pun," National Hydropower Association, or NHA, CEO and President Malcolm Woolf said in an interview.

In a press release on the agreement, Woolf said the existing regulatory process for hydropower is unnecessarily time-consuming and expensive. "With this proposal, we can enhance collaboration, efficiency, and better decision making, and we urge Congress to pass this much-needed reform," Woolf said.

Improved coordination

The NHA, several tribes, and other stakeholders on April 4 announced the package of proposed hydropower licensing reforms that include several changes to the Federal Power Act.

One of the main focuses is improved coordination among the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally recognized tribes, and resource agencies in the licensing process.

Among other things, the proposed reforms would require FERC, other federal and state agencies, and tribes to help form a coordinated schedule for all federal hydropower licensing authorizations. The suggested reforms would also provide an opportunity for FERC, agencies, and tribes to resolve conflicting and inconsistent license terms before FERC makes its licensing decisions.

The package would shift Federal Power Act mandatory conditioning authority from the U.S. Department of the Interior to a federally recognized tribe for any project located on land held in trust within a tribal reservation.

In addition, FERC, relevant agencies, and tribes would have to consider climate change and related impacts when developing their license conditions, and evaluate whether "any ongoing or reasonably foreseeable adverse effect" on fish species can be mitigated through access to habitat upstream or downstream of a project dam. The proposal also allows consideration of off-site mitigation measures, if needed to supplement on-site mitigation efforts.

To speed the permitting process, the proposal seeks a two-year limit on licensing for certain projects at qualifying non-powered dams and a three-year licensing process for some closed-loop and off-stream pumped storage facilities. The proposal also aims to support new technologies, including by requiring FERC to investigate "opportunities and challenges for expanding micro hydropower resources," a summary of the proposal said.

Another provision would require FERC to establish procedures for hydropower projects that are at the end of their useful lives to follow to surrender their licenses. The procedures must include timelines, as well as requirements for documentation and public participation that begin early in the license surrender process.

The package is supported by a broad coalition that includes the National Hydropower Association, conservation and environmental groups such as American Rivers, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Skokomish Tribe, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, and Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Help for existing hydropower projects

Woolf said in the interview that hydropower is a "force multiplier" that could both provide clean energy while serving as a backup for variable renewable resources such as wind and solar power. But an onerous licensing process is putting existing hydro generation at risk, he said.

About a third of the non-federal hydropower fleet is up for relicensing by 2030, representing 13 GW of hydroelectric and pumped storage. The profusion of licensing requirements has made some facility operators question whether to renew their licenses, but Woolf said the reforms in the April 4 agreement could remedy those issues.

The NHA is also excited about the provisions to shorten the permitting process for new generation. The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that 5 GW of generation could be created using existing infrastructure at non-powered dams. And although the U.S. has not built a new pumped storage project in over 20 years, more than 90 such projects are now in the pipeline.

But the NHA and other proponents of the new agreement need to get Congress on board. The groups just submitted their proposal to the White House and Congress, but "this is an issue that Capitol Hill has been considering for many years," Woolf said. "Coming forward with a package that has such broad support ... we hope will break that kind of a stalemate and advance a package this Congress."

An aide for the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmed that the committee is reviewing the proposal and "considering potential next steps."

The deal announced April 4 stems from a dialogue on hydropower and river conservation organized in 2018 by Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment and other organizations. The new package of proposed reforms is the third agreement by a subset of dialogue participants. Another subset of participants pushed for hydropower support in the new federal infrastructure law, which provided more than $2.3 billion to rehabilitate U.S. dams for safety, retrofit some for hydropower production, and remove others for conservation.

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