Two bills on hydropower could help Colorado

It’s a tale of two ditches — one administered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the other by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Legislation approved by the U.S. House would lift barriers to generating electricity using the water that passes through canals operated under commission regulation.

Similar legislation for canals built under the auspices of the Bureau of Reclamation is awaiting a vote in the House. An identical measure was passed during the previous House session.

Critics last session criticized the Bureau of Reclamation bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., because it would waive environmental studies for the small projects. Projects associated with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission already enjoy that exemption, but the bill affecting those projects would strip away more red tape.

The measure affecting FERC projects, HR 267, introduced by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and cosponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., also passed the House last year.

Tipton twice supported both measures. DeGette voted against Tipton’s Bureau of Reclamation bill in the last session.

A spokesman for DeGette didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Neither bill was taken up by the Senate last time around, but both have Senate sponsors this year.

This year’s Bureau of Reclamation bill, HR 678, would exempt small hydroelectricity projects from review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The costs of complying with the environmental policy act typically dwarf the actual costs of installing small turbines into canals, ditches or other conduits in which enough water runs to spin a turbine, Tipton said.

“The only thing standing in the way of realizing the incredible potential of this readily available renewable energy source is the existing federal regulatory framework, which stifles development and entrepreneurship,” Tipton said when he introduced the measure this year.

HR 678 would clear the way for development at 373 possible sites in 13 western states, Tipton said, citing a Bureau of Reclamation site inventory conducted in 2012.

Three of those sites have been proposed for development of small hydropower, Tipton’s office said, noting that “many potential developers view federal law and regulations as the primary obstacles to developing these and other Reclamation sites.”

Colorado has 27 sites in which small projects could be installed on existing conduits, generating more than 27,000 kilowatts, Tipton’s office said.

An average house uses about 10,000 kilowatt hours of electricity each year.

“Colorado currently has hundreds of hydro-related jobs, a number which has the potential to grow rapidly if the pending hydro reform legislation can become law,” the Colorado Small Hydro Association said in a statement of support for the FERC bill. The National Hydropower Association estimates each new megawatt could result in 5.3 jobs created.

As many as 60,000 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity could be built by 2025, the Colorado Small Hydro Association said, noting that the Energy Department said there is more than 12,000 megawatts that might be developed at 54,000 existing dams around the nation.

The McMorris Rogers-DeGette bill would allow projects, which already enjoy a categorical exclusion from the National Environmental Policy Act, as large as 10 megawatts and establish a 45-day public-notice process. If no objections are expressed, the project would no longer be subject to commission permitting requirements.

The FERC measure is sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, as S545 and the Bureau of Reclamation measure by Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyo., is S306.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., signed on a cosponsor of the Murkowski bill and his office said he is considering the Reclamation measure.

A House committee vote on the Bureau of Reclamation measure is expected soon, Tipton’s office said.


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