Resource development continues with a sustainable, living hub of information that could help streamline infrastructure-related regulatory processes being expanded to encompass hydropower projects.
By Aaron Levine and Katherine Young
Figure 1 — RAPID Toolkit Overview Flowchart
Uncertainty about the duration and outcome of the permitting process, including requirements from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), has historically been a deterrent to investment in new hydropower and other renewable energy projects.
What if the process were clearer, smoother and faster?
The newly developed Regulatory and Permitting Information Desktop (RAPID) Toolkit acts as a hub location from which users can easily and quickly access links to permit documents, processes, best practices, manuals and related information. The RAPID Toolkit currently hosts information about bulk electricity transmission, geothermal, and solar technologies.
Now, the RAPID Toolkit is being expanded to include information about developing and permitting hydropower projects, with information gathering, initial development, and rollout occurring in 2015.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) began development of the RAPID Toolkit in 2014 with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Western Governors’ Association. The Geothermal Regulatory flowchart started in 2010 and was the inspiration/precursor for RAPID.
The toolkit’s goal is to facilitate better understanding and communication between project developers and permitting agency personnel, among permitting agencies at all jurisdiction levels, and with all project stakeholders–including the public.
Since its launch, the toolkit has helped provide more certainty about requirements, reduced duplicative processes, and facilitated communication among regulatory agencies and project developers. For example, in Nevada, mapping the permitting process for geothermal projects revealed water monitoring requirements at the federal, state, and local levels, and each jurisdiction had different design and reporting requirements.
Relevant agencies recognized the problem and agreed to coordinate efforts, created a shared set of requirements and a single reporting form, and established a single agency as point of contact for developers. The changes save time and effort for developers as well as the agencies.
On March 22, 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order, “Improving Performance of Federal Permitting and Review of Infrastructure Projects1,” in order to significantly reduce the aggregate time required to make decisions in the permitting and review of infrastructure projects by the federal government, while improving environmental and community outcomes
Since that time, there have been a number of related Presidential Memorandums related to improving permitting performance for energy and infrastructure projects. In support of that policy effort, DOE’s Geothermal Technology Office initiated a regulatory flowcharting effort to collect information about federal and state permitting processes for new geothermal projects, which were often poorly defined, involved multiple federal and state agencies, and differed widely across jurisdictions.
This effort convened federal, state and local government officials with industry members to identify where better information could improve the situation and to help standardize and align processes with best practices where they existed. From 2013 to 2014, the development team built similar regulatory flowcharts for utility-scale solar and bulk transmission projects, and the RAPID Toolkit was born.
Documenting hydropower permitting
Now, actions are under way to expand the toolkit to include hydropower and reach out to agencies and stakeholder groups to discuss how to best align this resource with the particular needs of the hydropower industry. In 2015, the RAPID Toolkit project team will continue development efforts, including the following activities:
- Federal flowchart: Complete initial draft flowcharts for federal permits and authorizations required for all types of hydropower and pumped-storage development projects.
- State flowcharts: Inventory and document the state-specific authorizations and permits required for at least two states. Attention will be placed on all aspects of permitting a hydropower facility, including water quality certification, water rights and historic preservation.
- Stakeholder engagement: Through preliminary meetings with federal agencies and hydropower project developers, owners and operators, as well as consultants and law firms, the RAPID Toolkit team intends to reach out to stakeholders to build awareness of this new RAPID Toolkit feature and to identify potential partnership opportunities.
The team has already engaged with federal agency staff at a quarterly meeting of the Federal Hydropower Working Group (October 2014) and a workshop held at the National Hydropower Association’s Annual Conference (April 2015). Individual meetings have also been held with key personnel at FERC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, Forest Service, National Parks Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation.
During the second half of 2015, outreach will expand to include hydropower developers, project owners and permitting consultants and will include a public meeting held in conjunction with the 2015 HydroVision International Conference being held in Portland, Ore., in July.
What to expect
A Regulatory Flowchart Library will be the first RAPID Toolkit feature developed for hydropower. The RAPID flowchart provides an overview (see Figure 1, pages 26 and 30), which leads developers through a series of questions with interactive links to information that help identify project activities that may trigger a permit requirement or other regulatory action. A hydropower reference library is under development as well. The RAPID Toolkit also provides best practices catalogues and a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) database.
These overview flowcharts will direct users to additional federal and state flowcharts that outline the required activities, consultations and processes. A narrative supports each flowchart that further explains content. It also includes a web-linked list of relevant regulations, supporting documents and tools that aid the user in navigating the process.
Each flowchart section also provides a list of permit triggers and primary agency contact information. The RAPID Toolkit resources are intended to supplement, not replace, other decision-making tools and processes. The Regulatory Flowchart Library resources do not constitute professional legal advice or other professional regulatory guidance, although the long-term goal is to ensure that information added to the toolkit is reviewed by federal and state agency personnel and is consistent with all existing rules and regulations.
Visit http://en.OpenEI.org/wiki/RAPID, where you can contribute to the wiki-based source view more than 500 regulatory flowcharts and supporting narratives; a NEPA database that includes more than 150 NEPA-related document sets and associated metadata; a resource library with hundreds of regulatory resources; and a best practices database.
1Presidential Executive Order, Improving Performance of Federal Permitting and Review of Infrastructure Projects, 2012, www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/03/22/executive-order-improving-performance-federal-permitting-and-review-infr.
Aaron Levine, J.D., is a legal and regulatory analyst and Kate Young is a geothermal energy engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory with expertise in geothermal planning and database planning and development.