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Hydropower & federal permitting: Strategies to grow power generation capacity

The National Hydropower Association (NHA) promotes hydropower as an essential component for a clean energy future. How best to scale hydropower generation to meet future needs remains an important topic of debate among industry advocates and opponents alike.

The ongoing debate about future hydropower generation was in sharp focus at the recent NHA sponsored “Clean Currents 2022” tradeshow in Sacramento, CA. While at the conference, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of experts exchanging perspectives about adding hydropower to existing projects and the impact of government permitting on future project development.

In preparing for our panel, I developed a sense that industry seems to be moving away from large-scale river projects for future hydropower development and toward a strategy emphasizing small, versatile power generating facilities that can be placed in water conveyance systems such as irrigation canals. I learned that these generating systems could augment energy generating capacity from other carbon-free energy systems including wind and solar as well as traditional energy generating systems.

The “New Development: Building New Hydro at Existing Infrastructure” panel included a diverse group of government and industry representatives:

  • Emily Morris, CEO of Emrgy Inc.;

  • Carly Hansen, water resources engineer for the Oak Ridge (TN) National Laboratory;

  • Kyle DeSomber, mechanical engineer for the Department of Energy’s National Laboratory in Richland, WA; and

  • Joshua Mortensen, hydraulic engineer at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Technical Services Center in Denver.

I captured three general take-aways from the panel discussion:

  1. Industry and government together must develop better tools and models to predict river flow regimes.

  2. Federal, state, and local agencies should update policies and regulations, including permitting requirements, to facilitate hydropower facilities development. For example, Federal permitting requirements are a costly, protracted process that disincentivizes investment in small, versatile hydropower facilities.

  3. Industry and government must confront changing hydropower project needs given water shortages and declines in river and lake levels. Water availability for major projects, including hydropower, has historically been based on stochastic forecasting where predictions of water availability are based on historical trends. Unfortunately, we are seeing increasing evidence that basing future water availability on historical trends is no longer an effective way to forecast future water availability. As a result, the hydropower industry, along with federal regulators, are collaboratively developing predictive models to forecast future water availability more accurately.

It's reasonable to conclude that the hydropower industry is in a period of transition. If hydropower is going to increase its contributions toward a clean energy future, government and industry must persist along a path of innovation and collaboration.

Rob Vining

Senior Advisor

Prior to joining Dawson & Associates in 2012, Rob was the National Water Practice Leader for HNTB Corporation and prior to that, served as Chief of the Civil Works Programs, Management Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.

Tags: Hydropower, Renewable Energy, Pumped storage


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