Thoughts on a national renewable portfolio standard

With a pair of federal renewable portfolio standards submitted to the Senate within just days of each other during the last week of October, I thought it might be a good idea to compare the two in terms of what they would do for the hydropower industry.

The first — introduced to Congress on October 29 by senators Mark Udall, Tom Udall and Ben Cardin — is called the Renewable Electricity Standard Act of 2013 (or officially Senate Bill 1595).

The second — the American Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act (S.B. 1627) — was introduced two days later by Sen. Edward Markey.

Both bills include provisions that would require utilities to obtain a minimum of 25% of their energy from renewable sources by 2025, and, most significantly for this industry, hydroelectric power is included in each.

The most significant difference between the two — as it pertains solely to hydropower — lies in the manner in which piece of legislation defines project eligibility.

S.B. 1595 states that hydropower projects to be included in the national renewable portfolio standard (RPS) must be “additional generation that is achieved from increased efficiency or additions of capacity made on or after A) the date of enactment of [S.B. 595’s] section; or B) the effective date of an existing applicable state renewable portfolio standard program at a hydroelectric facility that was placed in service before that date”.

In other words, existing hydroelectric capacity would not be counted towards a utility’s “base quantity of electricity” unless it was already considered “renewable” under a given state’s standard.

Meanwhile, S.B. 1627 uses Jan. 1, 2001, as its cutoff date for eligible hydropower plants, though it adds the caveat that it “does not include additional energy generated as a result of operational changes not directly associated with efficiency improvements or capacity additions”.

I have heard some cry foul in saying the bills would harm hydroelectric development by putting hydro on an uneven playing field with solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and other forms of renewables that the legislation would presumably benefit, but frankly, the fact that hydro is even included should be chalked up as a victory for the industry.

To me, hydro’s inclusion reflects changing attitudes toward it as a means of green power production, so though its inclusion in renewable portfolio standards at the state level has often been a source of controversy, its prominence in both Senate proposals indicates rather definitively that hydro power has gained acceptance at the federal level.

Hydro’s resurgence in the minds of America’s policy makers is further evidenced in the passage of the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013 (House Resolution 267) and Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act (H.R. 678) — both of which were signed into law by President Barack Obama in August, and both of which emphasize the potential for hydroelectric development at existing federally-owned infrastructure.

It would seem to me then that both S.B. 1595 and S.B. 1627 would only serve as boons for hydropower — especially given the avenues for development opened by H.R. 267 and H.R. 678.

In fact, I would argue that the cutoff dates included in both Senate proposals are actually more beneficial to the hydropower industry than if all existing projects were included in the national RPS since they actually encourage new development.

And though they most certainly open the doors for other renewables as well, I can’t help but think hydropower has a lot of things going its way when it comes time for utilities to determine how they’re going to increase their green power output.

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Michael Harris formerly was Editor for HydroWorld.com.

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