Gina S. Warren | Associate Professor of Law
TEXAS A&M University
Hydropower is the most abundant, most efficient, and least expensive source of renewable electricity generation on earth. Over 160 countries generate electricity from some form of hydropower, accounting for approximately 16 percent of the world's electricity generation. Yet, when most people think of hydropower they think of huge dams, dead fish, and a destroyed environment. Unfortunately, this perception has on too many occasions been a reality. To reach its full potential, it's time for hydropower to get a "small" makeover.
Small or low flow hydropower projects are generally considered to be those projects that generate no more than 30 MW of electricity. Small hydropower generates electricity when free-flowing water moves through a turbine strategically placed within the flow of a waterway, whether natural or man-made. These facilities do not need to utilize dams or reservoirs, so the majority of the potential negative environmental impacts are mitigated. Unfortunately, however, this resource has remained under-developed over the last several decades, resulting in a lost opportunity for sustainable energy development.
This study analyzes two important steps to sustainable small hydropower development. First, small hydropower should be located on existing facilities located near the customer base. This specific placement will maximize efficiency and minimize environmental harm. Second, to efficiently optimize the develop of small hydropower, regulatory bodies need to implement simple, expeditious, and inexpensive licensing schemes so that the costs and complications do not outweigh the benefits.
III. Results and Discussion.
A. Small Hydropower Should be Sited on Existing Infrastructure Near a Customer Base
To fully embrace the potential of sustainable hydropower generation, investors and regulatory agencies must look to develop small, localized facilities on existing infrastructure. Unlike large conventional hydropower, small and low flow hydropower facilities require less water flow -- making them less susceptible to climate changes -- and can be placed in or on existing conduits, canals, locks, and even on existing small unpowered dams. Importantly, these small facilities are less likely to negatively impact the environment because they take up less space, do not require a reservoir, and in many instances can be located on waterways free of wildlife or natural habitat (such as with conduits or canals).
Furthermore, small hydropower can, and should, be developed near populated areas, making it a valuable distributed generation energy source. Utilizing small and low flow hydropower as a distributed generation energy source results in low-cost, renewable energy generation that is less susceptible to outages caused by a changing climate. The utilization of micro-level transmission and distribution grids will provide greater protection to communities. If a storm, flood, earthquake, etc., knocks out power from one facility, the entire geographical area will not lose electricity.
B. Proper Licensing Schemes Must be Established for Small Hydropower
In addition to properly siting these small and low flow facilities, regulatory agencies must establish licensing schemes that allow for low cost and expeditious development. The United States, which currently generates between 6 to 8 percent of its electricity from hydropower, provides a good case study. Its current licensing scheme is administered through the federal government. It requires, with few exceptions, that small projects undergo the same complex licensing process as large projects, such as construction of another Hoover Dam. The process is expensive -- costing several times that of the technology itself. The process is time-consuming -- often taking up to five years to complete. The process is complex -- requiring multiple levels of consultation, often with dozens of parties.
This licensing structure appears to be a deterrent to small and low flow hydropower development and investment, and this study looks at options to transform the existing scheme. One seemingly superior option being explored in this study is the use of subsidiarity, whereby the least (or lowest) centralized authority capable of undertaking the licensing should do so. In the United States this means that the states and local governments could take over the licensing of small qualifying facilities from the federal government. This could most efficiently be accomplished through delegation agreements such as Memorandums of Understanding. The federal government could maintain oversight authority over state programs to ensure they are consistent with federal policy and that development is consistent among the different states. States could screen the projects, ensure the applications are complete, identify any necessary consultations and studies so as to satisfy all licensing requirements, and issue the licenses if all requirements have been met. If properly implemented, these delegation agreements could decrease costs, increase efficiency, and provide an incentive for states to promote small hydropower development while still empowering them to protect their natural resources, fish, wildlife, and recreational opportunities.
In developing small hydropower, regulatory agencies should focus development efforts on existing infrastructure located near populated areas. Small and low flow hydropower facilities can be placed in or on existing conduits, canals, locks, and small unpowered dams. If developed near populated areas, the facilities work as low-cost renewable energy to power local customer needs. In addition to strategic placement of these small hydropower facilities, the least centralized regulatory agency capable of doing so should implement a streamlined licensing scheme that promotes investment and development. 1. Carley,S., Distributed Generation: An Empirical Analysis of Primary Motivators, 37 Energy PolÂ’y 1648 (2009). 2. Kosnik, L., The Potential for Small Scale Hydropower Development in the US, 38 Energy PolÂ’y 5512 (2010). 3. Madani, K., Hydropower Licensing and Climate Change: Insights from Cooperative Game Theory, 34 Advances in Water Resources (2011). 4. U.S. DepÂ’t of Energy, The Potential Benefits of Distributed Generation and Rate-Related Issues That May Impede Their Expansion (2007). 5. U.S. DepÂ’t of Energy, Feasibility Assessment of the Water Energy Resources of the United States for New Low Power and Small Hydro Classes of Hydroelectric Plants (2006). 6. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Managing Water in the West: Hydropower Resource Assessment at Existing Reclamation Facilities (2011). 7. U.S. DepÂ’t of the Interior, et al, Potential Hydroelectric Development at Existing Federal Facilities (2007). 8. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Managing Water in the West: Site Inventory and Hydropower Energy Assessment of Reclamation Owned Conduits (2012).