Growing up in Oklahoma — a state with no natural lakes but more shoreline than the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts combined — dams are plentiful, and with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Keystone Dam and its 70 MW hydropower plant just 20 miles to the west, I always had a vision of what I thought a hydroelectric plant and the pieces that make it possible should look like.
There’d always be a large retaining structure of some sort, a lake behind it, and somewhere, a hall housing large turbines that use the impounded water to generate electricity.
In describing what I do to my friends, it seems their impressions of hydropower are much the same — that it requires massive infrastructure, massive reservoirs, and massive equipment.
Their minds instantly think of projects like Hoover, Bonneville, Three Gorges — even Oklahoma’s Keystone, which pales in comparison — and admittedly, mine did too before I began covering an industry that, aside from the bits I absorbed from a father who has spent his career with the Corps, I knew little about.
That’s why I found a recent segment on the PBS program, NewsHour, to be so interesting.
The piece, titled, “Increasing Hydropower Hits a Bipartisan Sweet Spot”, aired last week and details what Inside Energy’s Dan Boyce calls “the new face” of hydroelectricity.
The story is targeted toward people who, like me, don’t understand the potential of small, non-intrusive hydropower assets, and, frankly, those who don’t know such an option even exists as I didn’t just a few short years ago.
The segment highlights President Barack Obama’s signing of the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act and the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act in August 2013 — both of are designed to cut the federal approval processes for small hydro proposals — but also notes there is still more work to be done in speeding the development process.
Kurt Johnson, president of the Colorado Small Hydro Association (COSHA), compared the 2013 legislation to taking a kitchen knife to the red tape, saying, “We need another round of legislation, perhaps to get a machete, and further clear out some of those regulatory barriers.”
Perhaps more poignantly, however, Johnson asks the common-sense question many in the industry have asked, saying, “If projects are tiny and non-controversial, why is the federal government involved at all?”
It is very much a question worth considering, and though the 2013 bills are still certainly a coup worth celebrating, to Johnson’s point, both state and federal approval processes confound what really should be a simpler path for small hydropower developers.
A transcript of the piece in its entirety is available online at PBS.org.