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FERC, Corps roll out plan to speed hydropower permit reviews

FERCand the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a new process July 21 forreviewing and authorizing non-federal hydropower projects, which the agenciessaid could reduce permitting time and provide more certainty for developers.

Theagreement may unlock more hydropower potential as the U.S. seeks to cut carbonemissions and get a bigger share of its electricity from clean energy sources.

"Thisstrengthened collaboration between FERC and the Army Corps of Engineersadvances the Obama administration's work to transition to a clean energyeconomy, and reduce carbon pollution," said Jo Ellen Darcy, assistantsecretary of the Army for civil works.

Thesynchronized review process is broken down into two phases. The first phasefocuses on the environmental review. The project developer will coordinateearly with FERC and Corps staff on the proposal and any information needed forthe agencies' permitting decisions. The developer will then prepare and submitapplications for a FERC hydropower license and Corps Clean Water Act Section404 permit, which authorizes the discharge of dredge or fill material into U.S.waterways.

Afterthe applications are submitted, FERC and the Corps will conduct one coordinatedenvironmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act. Thatjoint review will inform both FERC's licensing decision and the Corps' reviewsunder Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and Section 14 of the Rivers andHarbors Act, which authorizes activities on Corps civil works, including modifyingdams for hydropower production. The first phase ends after FERC issues alicensing decision and the Corps deems the Section 404 application complete andprovides status letters under that part of the Clean Water Act and Section 14of the Rivers and Harbors Act.

Duringthe second phase, the developer prepares detailed project designs incoordination with FERC and Corps staff and submits the designs to both agenciesfor review. If the designs are approved, the Corps will issue its Section 14approval decision and then the final Section 404 decision to the developer.After all preconstruction requirements are complete and FERC receives copies ofthe Corps' written construction approvals, the commission will authorizeconstruction.

Previously,FERC would often complete its licensing process before the Corps would do itsSection 404 and Section 14 process. That system can result in "multipleiterations of the project proposal" and "duplicative informationgathering and environmental analyses," the two agencies said in their new31-page memorandum of understanding.

Withthe new permitting regime, the agencies said they could increase efficienciesand reduce the overall license and permit application review period bysynchronizing parts of the review process that had previously occurredsequentially. That process could reduce environmental uncertainties during thesecond phase of permitting, increasing the project's chances of going toconstruction.

Theagencies warned there could be "tradeoffs" under the new process,such as an earlier commitment of effort and resources and greater investment inproject planning and design at an earlier stage.

TheNational Hydropower Association was not immediately available for comment.

AtFERC's July 21 monthly meeting, Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur cited estimatesthat only about 3% of U.S. dams currently generate electricity. More than halfof potential U.S. hydropower capacity is at Corps dams, yet only a little over10% of the agency's more than 700 owned or operated dams generate electricity,she added.

"Ithink and hope that this [new process] is an accomplishment that will yieldreal value," LaFleur said.

TheU.S. Department of Energy released a studyin April 2014 that estimated up to 65 GW of new hydroelectric facilities couldbe developed on untapped U.S. waterways. A substantial portion of thatpotential new capacity is at non-power dams that alreadyexist. In a July 21 presentation before FERC, the DOE said 12 GW of potentialnew hydropower is located at non-power dams, of which 6.9 GW are Corps dams.

Aswifter and more efficient permitting process could aid development ofhydropower at a time when utilities are trying to cut carbon emissions and thecountry is planning to get a greater share of its generation from cleanresources. The U.S. EPA's Clean Power Plan was stayed by the Supreme Court inFebruary but, if upheld, will require large cuts in carbon output by manystates. And the U.S., Canada and Mexico recently to deriving half of NorthAmerica's electricity from clean sources, including hydropower facilities, by2025.