The US Army Corps of Engineers recently sponsored a Pacific Northwest regional outreach program for retired Corps leaders, including several of my Dawson & Associates colleagues, highlighting the regulatory challenges of expanding hydropower capability in the US. The topic is both timely and necessary as it relates to the Biden administration’s broad climate and energy goals.
Last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Package, contains several hydroelectric power provisions that encourage the installation of new generation on existing dams and seek improvements for safety and environmental performance of existing dams. Additionally, as renewable energy becomes increasingly viable, electrical grid flexibility and energy storage, which hydropower resources can reliably provide, become a critical necessity.
As the former senior government civilian in charge of the hydropower portfolio for the Corps, I directed the development of the Hydropower Modernization Initiative; an asset management strategy to rehabilitate and modernize aging federal hydropower assets. Today, this effort is providing critically needed efficiency improvements and more reliable and secure equipment for USACE hydropower powerplants.
Given we are about halfway through the modernization initiative’s 20-year effort, the time is right to turn our attention to the non-federal U.S. hydropower fleet and consider powering up non-powered dams in the US, particularly USACE non-powered dams, which would make a substantial contribution to the US attaining its renewable energy goals and a zero-carbon future.
As of February 2022, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s web site had 114 pending licensing and/or re-licensing hydropower applications. These applications are currently at operational projects whose licenses are about to expire. In addition, there are about 80 FERC applicants applying for an initial hydropower preliminary permit to explore the possibility for development.
To realize the benefits as soon as economically practical, it is essential that the FERC permitting and licensing/re-licensing process be streamlined to reduce approval time. Those applicants at USACE non-powered dams must navigate the Section 404 (Clean Water Act) and Section 408 process (Section 14 of Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 codified in 33 USC 408) in addition to the FERC approval process.
Combined, this is a tremendously cumbersome and time-consuming process that can take more than 8 to 10 years. Currently, there is about 3,000 megawatts of capacity at USACE dams having no power plant that can be feasibly developed. This is enough capacity to provide energy for about 1,000 US homes.
According to the FERC website, there is more than 35,000 megawatts of pumped storage capacity waiting to be licensed in the US with another 32,000 megawatts in the permitting queue. These projects are the needed “batteries” for grid energy storage in order to optimize the output of wind, solar and other renewables.
Hydropower is proven renewable energy technology. It has a long history of meeting the nation’s clean energy needs very reliably. I welcome the current uncommon dialogue between the hydropower industry and environmental groups to further the development of hydropower, improve development and operational processes and significantly reduce environmental impacts. Getting these projects through the regulatory and environmental process is challenging. However, it can and must be done in a thorough, prudent and timely process if we are seriously committed to a zero-carbon future.
A member of the Dawson team since 2019, Kamau spent more than 35 years in the Army Corps of Engineers, including more than a decade as National Hydropower Business Line Manager at Corps Headquarters. During this time, he was responsible for the program’s strategic direction, policy, and infrastructure management.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.