Drought, costly facility upgrades and a slow permitting process threaten the country’s ability to harness and develop hydropower to generate electricity, witnesses and lawmakers agreed at a hearing in the Senate which was looking for solutions to overcome the challenges.
Both Democrats and Republicans see hydropower as a unique and valuable renewable energy because it provides baseload electricity and can repower collapsing grids, a growing concern after the devastating US blackout. last winter in Texas. Hydroelectricity provided 7.3% of total electricity generation in the United States in 2020, with most of it generated at federal dams operated by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. It’s a critical complement to other forms of renewable energy, but proponents say it lacks the significant federal incentives for investors and industry enjoyed by alternative sources like wind and solar.
“I think we’ve taken it for granted for too long on hydroelectricity, and are really paying attention to it and developing it as it should be,” the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman said. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) during Tuesday’s hearing.
The bipartisan Infrastructure Act (Public Law 117-58) invests more than $750 million in new and existing incentives, including tax credits, for hydropower generation and improvement. It also provides $8.2 billion to the Bureau of Reclamation for western water infrastructure, including upgrades.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to do more to make the energy source more attractive to investors and operators through greater incentives and a less cumbersome licensing process.
Sense. Maria Canwell (D-wash.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) are co-sponsoring legislation (S. 2306) that would create new federal tax incentives to promote system environmental resiliency improvements for hydroelectric dams. Murkowski said Tuesday that she hopes the bill will move this Congress. “I think it will be a big step forward.”
Montana Sens. Steve Daines (R) and Jon Tester (D) with Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) on Monday filed a bill (S. 3450) authorizing hydropower for the Sun River project, including the Gibson Dam, in the state. Hydroelectricity provides nearly half of all electricity in Montana, Daines said.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) Tuesday told Cantwell he wanted to work with her to streamline the federal license renewal process. Hydropower has been “a good source of energy” in Oklahoma, which has 10 facilities, but the license renewal process has been a challenge, he said. Other federal agencies don’t always follow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s licensing and renewal guidelines, prolonging the process, Lankford said.
Maintenance upgrades and renovations at non-federally operated facilities, necessary to stay FERC compliant, are expensive. Nearly 300 facilities must obtain a new federal permit before 2030, which requires them to meet certain federal standards that cost money to implement. “There is a real possibility that many of these factories will be closed,” Manchin said.
Industry interest in hydropower is high, said Malcolm Woolf, president and CEO of the National Hydropower Association, but the “crazy” permitting process is a deterrent. He said there needs to be greater “process discipline” to ensure agencies meet FERC deadlines and curb “agency overrun” related to non-Germanic projects being added to hydro initiatives. Woolf said the NHA and other groups will submit recommended reforms to the Federal Power Act to Congress next month.
Only 3% of the country’s 80,000 dams are currently generating power, meaning there’s an untapped opportunity to get unpowered dams, including Montana’s Gibson Dam, to generate power, a said Woolf.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said speeding up permitting and licensing processes for dams that do not involve environmental issues could be a way to expand hydropower. One of the main environmental concerns related to dams, which are essential for hydroelectricity, is their impact on fisheries because they disrupt the natural flow of water.
Record low water levels in the Colorado River as well as Lake Mead have “immediate impacts on hydroelectric generation,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said during the hearing.
A multi-state partnership in the West, known as the 500+ plan, would conserve and store water from Lake Mead through the lower Colorado River basin. The plan, which received funding in the Infrastructure Act, will ultimately benefit hydroelectric generation, Touton said.
Touton told the senator. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) that all partners and users agree on the water conservation objectives of the plan, and “we are ready to work”.
She added that the federal government and participating states have committed significant financial resources. “The Bureau of Reclamation has already found the $50 million out of $100 million of cost sharing that we have with the states and the states have gone to their boards and brought those funds in as well.”
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