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House Hydro Bill Tests Water for Broad Energy Deals

Ethan Miller/Getty Images File Photo
Hydropower — collected from such structures as the Hoover Dam — represented nearly two-thirds of domestic renewable-energy production and 8 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2011, according to the Energy Information Administration.

In February, the House did something rare: It passed an energy bill unanimously. Unlike the previous Congress’ standard fare of anti-EPA, pro-drilling measures, the first energy bill of the 113th Congress promoted small-scale hydropower projects and the electrification of existing dams.

In other words, the Republican-controlled House passed a clean-energy bill.

Of course, few Republicans could object on ideological grounds to legislation that aimed to expedite or remove regulatory requirements for expanding hydropower facilities. And it certainly helped that the chamber passed similar legislation in 2012 by a large margin.

Nevertheless, hydropower proponents say that developing the resource represents “low-hanging fruit” that members tired of the partisanship that has permeated energy policy can all agree is worth advancing to President Barack Obama’s desk. Hydropower represented nearly two-thirds — the largest share by far — of domestic renewable-energy production and 8 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2011, according to the Energy Information Administration. More than half of that total powered the Pacific Northwest region, and hydro is one of the few renewable resources that can provide baseload electricity — power that is available at all times — to the grid.

But just 3 percent of the 80,000 dams in the United States generate power, representing great potential for growing the resource, according to legislation championed by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo.

“If you can work on regulatory reform for those projects, then you can have small hydro throughout this country,” DeGette said.

The House lawmakers’ legislation would let small hydroelectric facilities generating up to 10 megawatts of power bypass Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing requirements that currently apply to projects producing more than 5 megawatts. The bill also would require FERC to study the feasibility of carrying out a two-year hydropower licensing pilot program at unpowered dams and would allow the commission to extend preliminary permits for two additional years.

Jeff Leahey, government affairs director at the National Hydropower Association, said House leaders probably moved the bill so they could promote energy legislation that “checked the boxes” on encouraging the development of a resource that is renewable and reliable. It also helped that the bill — along with another measure passed April 10 that would designate an Interior Department agency as the lead regulator of small federal conduits — moved through the House last Congress and didn’t need much additional work, he said.

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