Subcommittee hears testimony on dissatisfaction with FERC relicensing

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Two leaders of U.S. west coast-based utilities that generate hydroelectric energy testified on Capitol Hill during the last week of April, intimating Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing requirements for hydropower facilities are overly lengthy, unnecessarily frustrating and too expensive.

On April 27, seven days after the U.S. Senate passed bipartisan energy legislation (the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015), the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans heard testimony about dissatisfaction with FERC hydropower licensing.

The subcommittee conducted an oversight hearing titled, “Realizing the Potential of Hydropower as a Clean, Renewable and Domestic Energy Resource.”

Steve Boyd, director of the Turlock Irrigation District (TID) water resources and regulatory affairs based in Turlock, California, along with Debbie Powell, senior director of power generation operations for San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) each testified.

Boyd cited the 203-MW Don Pedro hydroelectric facility (FERC Project P-2299) as an example of a project that is taking a long period of time to receive FERC relicensing. The facility is located on the Tuolumne River northeast of La Grange, in Tuolumne County.

During his testimony, Boyd said, “We’ve been at this for seven years.”

TID and the Modesto Irrigation District (MID) jointly operate the facility, with TID possessing 68.46% ownership and MID 31.54%. Both districts were established in 1887 and they began the Don Pedro facility’s renewal process in 2009, to date spending more than US$20 million.

The project’s current FERC license, issued in 1966, expired on April 30 and the facility includes a reservoir that has a storage capacity of more than 2 million acre-feet.

Powell expressed similar concerns for PG&E

PG&E owns and operates one of the nation’s largest investor-owned hydroelectric systems -- consisting of 26 federally licensed projects -- built along 16 river basins stretching more than 500 miles.

According to a document PG&E released that contains Powell’s testimony, a portion of her comments indicate PG&E’s last 10 hydroelectric license renewals took between seven and 28 years, and had associated costs from $2 million to more than $20 million.

Additionally, she said, “When, and if, a license is approved and received, implementing the conditions of the license also routinely costs tens-of-millions of additional dollars.

“To put this into greater perspective, the cost and duration of the process to relicense an existing hydroelectric project can be just as cumbersome and complex as seeking a license for a new, unbuilt hydroelectric project. In both cases [renewals and new projects], the cost and duration associated with licensing is typically far greater than any other established electric generation technology.”

Powell cited the 142.83-MW Poe hydroelectric facility as an example.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Poe (FERC Project P-2107) is one of three projects PG&E owns and operates along the main stem of the North Fork Feather River.

The projects are operated as one cascading system known as the “Stairway of Power.” The system includes seven dams, reservoirs and eight powerhouses, which have a combined total installed capacity of 628.6 MW. PG&E's schemes include the 362.3-MW Upper North Fork Feather, which is the upper-most project; the 114-MW Rock Creek-Cresta that is downstream; and finally the Poe.

Poe was built in 1958 and its license expired on Sept. 30, 2003. Powell said PG&E filed an application for a new license on Dec. 16, 2003, but FERC has not yet granted the facility a renewal.

Published information indicates California has about 287 hydroelectric projects operated by the state; the federal government; and similar to utilities that run facilities that are neither state- nor federally-operated, such as those owned by PG&E, TID and MID.

A study of 16 hydropower licenses issued in 2011 by FERC found the average time from filing to licensing was 3.6 years, with the longest wait being 8 years.

According to the subcommittee, “There are approximately 1,030 active, non-federal hydropower licenses [nation-wide] issued by the federal government. Under the Federal Power Act, FERC has authority to license these facilities.

Over the next five years, 24% of all non-federal hydropower capacity will face relicensing.

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