Sen. Cantwell bill would increase hydropower production

— Legislation that could boost the development of small hydropower projects was introduced Wednesday in the U.S. Senate, announced Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

It would remove licensing barriers for small hydropower development and also would require a study on the feasibility of a streamlined two-year permitting process at existing dams.

It’s companion legislation to a bill by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., which cleared the House in February. This is the second session the legislation is being considered. The Senate did not act on it last year. This year, in addition to Cantwell, it is supported by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and National Resources, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The Washington State Water Resources Association, which is comprised of irrigation districts, likes the bill after working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, on the same concepts, said Tom Myrum, executive director of the group and the president of the National Water Resources Association Board.

“Emissions-free hydropower provides close to three-quarters of Washington State’s electricity and keeps our rates among the lowest in the country,” Cantwell said in a statement.

The legislation would not authorize construction of large new dams, but would encourage hydropower development and streamline licensing on existing dams and canals, she said.

“More hydropower capability means an increased supply of affordable clean energy, which helps make Washington state a leading place to live and do business,” she said.

Hydropower now is the largest source of clean, renewable energy in the United States, and Washington state produces almost a third of the nation’s total, more than any other state, according to Cantwell’s staff.

The bill would exempt small conduit projects producing up to five megawatts of power from FERC licensing requirements. Conduit projects fit existing man-made structures, such as canals, with electric-generation equipment.

It also would allow FERC to exempt, on a case-by-case basis, conduit projects that produce up to 40 megawatts of power.

The changes in the bill would dovetail with Washington state legislation sponsored by Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, that recently passed the state House.

It would allow power generated by hydroelectric projects in irrigation canals to qualify as renewable energy under the state’s Energy Independence Act created by Initiative 937. The act requires utilities to buy increasing percentages of electric power from certain types of renewable energy projects.

If a place was found for a hydroelectric project in a canal, it would increase the ability to sell the electricity generated, Myrum said.

However, the Washington State Water Resources Association would want irrigation districts to approve and place conditions on the placement of such hydropower generation facilities by entities other than the districts, Myrum said.

The bill introduced in the U.S. Senate also would increase the limit from five megawatts to 10 megawatts of power for small hydropower projects before FERC licensing is required. FERC also would be allowed to extend three-year preliminary permit terms for up to two more years to allow a permit applicant more time to develop and file a license application.

The bill would require FERC to study the feasibility of a streamlined two-year permitting process for proposed projects at existing dams without hydropower equipment and certain storage projects. Now the permitting process can take more than twice that long, according to Cantwell’s staff.