Hydro licensing bill passes House; Dam safety amendment omitted

Legislation designed to streamline hydroelectric power licensing and relicensing was approved by a majority vote in the House.

The bill, called the Hydropower Policy Modernization Act of 2017 — or officially House Resolution 3043 — passed the Republican-controlled House with a 257-166 advantage.

The policy’s primary purpose is to allow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to extend its preliminary permitting for an additional four years with the potential for an additional four years, while also establishing FERC as the lead agency in coordinating pertinent federal authorizations and reviews.

The bill also ensures that both conventional hydroelectric and marine generation are recognized by Congress as “renewable” forms of energy.

“As the largest source of renewable energy in the United States, we need to modernize the way we license and relicense hydropower,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who introduced the bill. “This legislation will do that.”

The right policy for the right time
H.R. 3043 comes at a particularly important juncture, with more than 500 hydro projects expected to enter the FERC relicensing process through 2030. These projects represent about half of all licensed plants under FERC jurisdiction, and about a third of all licensed hydro capacity.

McMorris Rodgers said she also hopes the bill would encourage additional hydro development at non-powered dam infrastructure — potentially unlocking significant amounts of clean energy as many states continue working toward meeting their renewable portfolio standards.

According to recent U.S. Department of Energy studies, just 3% of the more than 80,000 dams in the U.S. are being used for hydroelectric generation. The outstanding 97% represents up to 12 GW of opportunity.

“We could double hydropower production without building a single new dam, simply by updating and streamlining,” McMorris Rodgers said.

The Hydropower Policy Modernization Act of 2017 now moves to the Senate for further consideration.

Omitted from the bill
A bipartisan amendment to H.R. 3043, introduced by Reps. John Garamendi and Doug LaMalfa — both of California — would have required FERC to conduct a supplemental environmental review of the state’s Oroville Dam and related facilities before its relicensing.

According to Garamendi’s office, the last environmental review was finished in 2007 and no new one has been conducted since the spillway suffered “significant structural damage” in February 2017.

“The safety and environmental impact of the Oroville Dam is clearly an immediate concern for my constituents,” Garamendi said. “After this year’s frightening events, the federal government owes it to local residents and the entire state to conduct a thorough review before issuing a new operating license.”

If accepted, the amendment would have allowed additional time for FERC to review safety and environmental concerns raised by local communities, including sediment accumulation in the Feather River and other potential downstream impacts.

Despite the amendment being dropped from consideration, Garamendi said he’ still hopeful FERC will perform its due diligence before relicensing the facility.

“My message to FERC is clear,” the Representative said. “You must do this so that there is full protection and full understanding of the potential impact that this dam will have on communities, our water supply, as well as flooding.”

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Michael Harris formerly was Editor for HydroWorld.com.

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