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Forward to the Hydroelectric Renaissance!

The hydroelectric power industry, environmentalists and Native American tribes have reached an agreement that could expand hydroelectric power, according to The Wall Street Journal (subscription).

What’s happening: The deal, which still requires approval by Congress, “seeks to grant approvals to add hydroelectric power to some existing dams in as little as two years, while speeding the approval of off-river pumped-storage projects, which store surplus energy for later use, in as little as three years. Another key component would give tribes, instead of the Department of the Interior, authority on the conditions put on permits for things like the protection of tribal cultural resources or fish passage.”

  • Parties to the agreement, which would amend the Federal Power Act of 1920, include the National Hydropower Association, the Skokomish Indian Tribe, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, the Union of Concerned Scientists and American Rivers.
  • The package was sent Monday to congressional legislators and the White House.

Why it matters: “Hydroelectric power makes up about 7% of the U.S. electricity mix. Around 281 hydro-generating facilities, making up roughly one-third of non-federally owned generation, are up for re-licensing by 2030. The re-licensing process usually takes more than seven years and new projects take almost as long, a regulatory environment that has been likened to nuclear power approvals.”

  • Hydroelectric power “can generally serve as a steady source of electricity, and as a battery through pumped storage projects, which move water uphill to reservoirs when there is excess electricity, then back downhill through turbines when power is needed later.”

How it could work: “Regulators in many parts of the country want to speed the build-out of renewable energy in response to concerns about climate change. But while wind and solar have logged massive growth, they are intermittent sources of energy,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Hydropower, especially pumped hydropower, could play a major role in utility-scale energy storage if a compromise can pave the way for faster licensing and preventing litigation.

  • Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the current permitting process for hydropower “a wasteful disaster” because of its yearslong timelines. “I look forward to seeing the agreement various stakeholders have reached,” he said Friday.
  • Rep. Frank Joseph Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the groups had made an “unprecedented collaborative effort” to modernize hydropower licensing.

The NAM’s take: “This is a huge breakthrough and one that the NAM has long pushed for because hydropower is a renewable resource that has demonstrated the capability to provide affordable electricity and effectively complements the nation’s other fuel resources to meet U.S. energy needs,” said NAM Vice President of Energy and Resources Policy Rachel Jones.

  • “Although hydropower currently contributes a relatively small percentage of the nation’s energy supply, it is a significant percentage of the renewable energy supply. It is energy efficient, with energy conversion efficiency in the range of 85% to 95%.
  • “In particular, the NAM has long supported the streamlining of the regulatory process for hydroelectric power through the elimination of redundant or contradictory regulatory steps; efforts to offset potential impacts on fish and wildlife must be carefully balanced with the preservation of economic, recreational, public safety and climate goals—and this compromise deal might finally strike that long-sought balance.”
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