NHA launches UnlockHydro initiative

An educational campaign announced this week by the National Hydropower Association aims to increase awareness about the hydroelectric sector amongst the public and policymakers.

The initiative, called, "UnlockHydro", and its accompanying website launch as leaders in both the U.S. House and Senate work toward passage of new energy legislation.

Currently, NHA says, "hydropower is hamstrung by a licensing process that lacks coordination, resulting in duplicative reviews, conflicting priorities, deferred decision-making that delays both project deployment and real environmental improvements."

Hydropower currently faces a number of significant permitting and licensing obstacles, with fossil fuel plants enjoying shorter and simpler approvals in many instances.

"As a nation, if we are serious about decreasing carbon emissions and expanding clean energy solutions, we simply can't allow hydropower to be hindered by processes that can take up to 10 years," NHA Executive Director Linda Church Ciocci said. "With this campaign, we hope to empower and encourage Americans to let their representatives know how important waterpower is to our clean energy future."

Chief amongst NHA's concerns is an outdated federal licensing process. The association says nearly 40% of the dozens of existing projects awaiting approval have been delayed by at least five years past their license expiration dates, while almost 20% of currently pending relicensing applications have been delayed at least eight years past their expirations.

Adding to the problem will be more than 500 projects up for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing within the next 15 years. Combined, the plants account for more than 16 GW of installed capacity -- or about a third of all power under FERC's jurisdiction.

"Unless and until we have a system that exemplifies efficiency, timeliness and accountability, America's largest source of renewable energy will continue to be held back," Ciocci said. "Congress has a chance to unlock hydropower's potential to fight climate change, while protecting environmental values and providing millions of homes and businesses with access to affordable and sustainable energy."

That potential could equate to as much as 12,000 MW of new capacity by adding generating components to the 97% of 80,000 U.S. dams that currently lack hydroelectric equipment, according to a Department of Energy study.

"We cannot realize hydropower's full potential unless we address a process that is outdated and disjointed," NHA Senior Manager of Strategic Communication LeRoy Coleman said. "And through this campaign, we intend to educate policymakers and the public alike about hydropower's ability to provide carbon-free electricity."

Other significant points

Per NHA, problems faced by hydropower applicants during the licensing process can include:

  • Mandatory consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and/or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether FERC's licensing action would adversely impact any species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
  • FERC's licensing action also triggers state water quality certification under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. The statute requires the process to take no more than one year, though some states circumvent the deadline by requiring applicants to withdraw and refile certification applications.
  • Because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers typically elects not to participate in the FERC licensing process, the additional approval process required by the Corps under Section 408 of the Rivers and Harbors Act does not generally begin until after FERC issues its license -- even though they entail the same resource issues.
  • A number of additional federal permits, including dredge and fill permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, discharge permits under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act, and federal land use permits under the Federal Land Policy Management Act duplicate reviews already required by FERC's licensing process.

"We want to put in place a licensing process that protects our environmental resources while providing a process that is efficient, transparent, coordinated and provides more certainty for sound decision-making," Coleman said.

Legislative provisions


NHA is working to support hydropower provisions in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Key House provisions include:

  • Making the approval process for non-federal hydro more efficient and collaborative by requiring FERC to act as lead agency in coordinating with other federal, state, local government agencies and Indian tribes.
  • Promoting schedule discipline by directing FERC to consult with agencies and tribes in developing a schedule for all federal authorizations required for non-federal hydropower, and authorizing U.S. Court of Appeals to grant limited extensions of time as may be requested by agencies and tribes.
  • Improving the hydropower licensing study process by encouraging agencies and tribes to use existing relevant and reliable studies and information where appropriate, identifying best study practices and existing relevant studies, authorizing agencies and tribes to accept direct funding by hydropower applicants, on a voluntary basis, to help supplement agency resources, and authorizing studies to occur on a basin- or region-wide basis as may be requested by hydropower licensees or applicants in the basin or region.
  • Promoting the development of closed-loop pumped storage projects by establishing an expedited and focused licensing process for FERC’s licensing of these projects, which are essential to energy storage and grid reliability.
  • Encouraging hydropower project upgrades with minimal environmental effects by establishing an expedited FERC license amendment approval process for proposals that would increase hydropower capacity or efficiency; implement environmental protection, mitigation, or enhancement activities; or support public recreation opportunities.

Key Senate provisions include:

  • Designating FERC as the lead agency for purposes of coordinating all federal authorizations; requires federal and state agencies to cooperate with FERC.
  • Establishing a sense of Congress that all federal authorizations should be issued within 3 years of an accepted application filed with FERC.
  • Requiring FERC to maintain a consolidated record of all “license proceedings” under the FPA. Any agency providing recommendations in a license proceeding also must submit to FERC the rationale for the recommendations and any supporting materials for inclusion in the consolidated record.
  • Requiring FERC to develop a schedule, in consultation with federal and state agencies and tribes, for all Federal authorizations, and directs agencies and tribes to comply with the schedule. 
  • Allowing FERC to refer matters to the Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality for resolution if a Federal agency fails to adhere to the schedule, a final condition or prescription is unreasonably delayed, a proposed alternative has been unreasonably denied, or if a final condition or prescription would be inconsistent with law.
  • Requiring FERC to conduct an investigation of best practices in performing licensing studies, and to compile a comprehensive collection of studies and data accessible to the public that could be used to inform license proceedings.

"Our goal for this campaign is simple: enact legislation that modernizes the hydropower licensing process," Coleman said. "As the nation's largest source of renewable energy, we have the opportunity to unlock hydropower's ability to fight climate change."

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