FERC director backs hydro development legislation before Congress

Jeff Wright

The director of energy projects for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission endorsed nearly all the language of several hydropower development bills in testimony April 23 before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"Commission staff remains committed to exploring with project developers, its sister federal agencies, Indian tribes, the states, local government, and other stakeholders every avenue for the responsible development of our nation's hydropower potential," Director Jeff Wright told the panel. "The legislation under consideration will, as I have testified, assist in realizing that potential."

The energy committee took testimony from Wright and Bureau of Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Lowell Pimley on the Hydropower Improvement Act of 2013 (S.B.545), Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013 (H.R.267), and the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development Act (H.R.678 and S.B.306).

In the hearing, Wright only questioned one provision, contained in both S.B.545 and H.R.267, which would require the commission to investigate the feasibility of implementing a two-year licensing process for hydropower development at existing non-powered dams and for closed-loop pumped-storage projects.

In the first place, Wright said, he was not certain the language was necessary since FERC has made strides in recent years in which some licenses have been issued in a matter of a few months. Speedier licensing occurs, he said, when the project sponsor selects a site wisely, stakeholders agree on information needs, and state and federal agencies perform their responsibilities quickly.

"Moreover, the commission operates under significant constraints imposed by the FPA (Federal Power Act), and by other legislation affecting the licensing process -- the Clean Water Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Historic Preservation Act among them," he said. "In the absence of the ability to waive sections of the FPA and other acts, or to set enforceable schedules in licensing proceedings, it is not clear that the commission, under its existing authorities, can mandate a shortened process."

Wright expressed similar concerns in a 2011 hearing on a similar bill.

However, the FERC official endorsed language:

  • not requiring hydropower licenses for conduit projects of 5 MW or less;
  • allowing FERC to grant conduit exemptions on federal land and to issue conduit exemptions for all conduit exemptions up to 40 MW (up from the current 15-MW limit on non-governmental applicants);
  • increasing the maximum size of small hydropower projects eligible for exemptions to 10 MW from 5 MW;
  • allowing the commission to extend the term of three-year preliminary permits by two years, or alternatively allowing the commission to issue five-year permits;
  • requiring the Department of Energy to study the flexibility and reliability provided by pumped-storage projects as well as potential generation from conduit projects.

Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Pimley generally backed the language of the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development Act, saying it would clarify Reclamation's ability to authorize hydropower development at its facilities, an area covered previously by a jurisdictional memorandum of understanding with FERC. It also would direct Reclamation to give preference to conduit water users for hydro development.

Pimley took exception to language that would exempt projects on Reclamation conduits from environmental requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. He said low-impact projects can be efficiently developed under existing environmental review provisions without unduly delaying development.

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