Cantwell Introduces Bipartisan Bill to Boost U.S. Small Hydropower Development

Roughly 75 percent of Washington state’s electricity is from hydropower

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined a bipartisan group of senators in introducing the Hydropower Improvement Act of 2013, legislation that would encourage expanded hydropower production by removing some licensing barriers for small hydropower development. It would also require a study on the feasibility of a streamlined two-year permitting process at existing dams and pumped storage projects, a move that could help boost hydropower investment across the nation. The bill does not provide authorization to build large new dams.

The Hydropower Improvement Act of 2013 [bill text] is led by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (ENR), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), the committee’s chairman, along with committee members Cantwell and James Risch (R-ID), and Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Mark Begich (D-AK). The bipartisan bill is considered companion legislation to a House bill (H.R. 267) introduced by Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, which cleared the House on February 13, 2013.

Hydropower 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. Roughly 75 percent of Washington’s electricity is generated from hydropower, and the same dams irrigate Eastern Washington’s farms which produce top crops such as apples, cherries, hops, and wheat. Washington state also has huge potential to produce electricity with small in-stream hydropower technologies by harnessing water flowing in the state’s numerous irrigation canals and conduits.

“Emissions-free hydropower provides close to three-quarters of Washington state’s electricity and keeps our rates among the lowest in the country,” Senator Cantwell said. “This bipartisan bill would help encourage small hydropower development and streamline hydropower licensing on existing dams and canals. More hydropower capability means an increased supply of affordable clean energy, which helps make Washington state a leading place to live and do business. I look forward to working with my colleagues to quickly pass this common-sense legislation.”

The Hydropower Improvement Act of 2013 would make it easier for existing dams and conduit projects like canals to add small hydropower capacity by easing time-intensive and costly federal licensing processes. Specifically, the bill would:

  • Exempt small conduit projects producing up to five megawatts of power from Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licensing requirements;
  • Allow FERC to exempt small conduit projects that would produce up to 40 megawatts on a case-by-case basis;
  • Exempt small hydropower projects generating up to 10 megawatts of power from FERC licensing requirements, compared with the current five megawatt limit; and
  • Provide FERC with the authority to extend its three-year preliminary permit terms for up to two additional years to allow a permit applicant sufficient time to develop and file a license application.

The bill would also require FERC to study the feasibility of a streamlined two-year permitting process for proposed projects at existing non-powered dams and closed-loop pumped storage projects. Currently, the permitting process can take more than twice as long. An expedited permitting process could help boost hydropower investment.

As the number one hydro-producing state in the nation, Washington state is poised to build on its existing capability to generate more clean, renewable power without building new dams. Much of the nation’s new hydropower capacity can be gained by maximizing existing infrastructure and through the use of new technologies, such as upgrading turbines to produce more power with the same volume of water. Other growth opportunities include water power applications that don’t require large dams, such as in-conduit devices, hydrokinetics and closed-loop pumped storage. At present, 97 percent of America’s 80,000 dams don’t produce electricity. 

Producing homegrown renewable energy can help reduce the nation’s dependence on energy imports, improve the security and reliability of the electric grid by promoting distributed generation, and avoid emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. It can also help keep electricity rates low for consumers, helping to attract new residents and businesses to the region.

Cantwell has been a consistent champion for expanded hydropower production. During the 112th Congress, she led similar legislation that cleared the Energy Committee with her support but never received a vote by the full Senate.