Early Friday evening, President Obama signed into law two bills which aim to speed the licensing and environmental approval of low-impact hydropower projects. One bill is focused on projects under 5 megawatts constructed in manmade conduits - tunnels, canals, pipelines, aqueducts, flumes, ditches, or similar water conveyances – operated for the distribution of water for agricultural, municipal, or industrial consumption. These facilities no longer require FERC licensing, and therefore should be able to move forward much more expeditiously. Another provision allows slightly larger facilities – those with a capacity up to 10 kilowatts – to also be exempted from FERC licensing requirements by FERC Rule or Order. The last major provision of this bill requires FERC to examine the potential of issuing in only 2 years (including prefiling) all future licenses for hydropower development at nonpowered dams and closed loop pumped storage projects. The bill authorizes pilot projects and workshops to assist in the development of such a two-year process. The second bill stresses the need for streamlining the environmental review (essentially NEPA) process, ordering the Bureau of Reclamation to categorically exclude from the NEPA process such small conduit projects.
These bills were simultaneously a huge achievement and a small step. Combined, they passed the House and Senate with only seven voices against them and more than a thousand in favor. This is a clear message that small hydro projects in manmade structures should be licensed as quickly as possible, with a minimum of delay. Notwithstanding this impressive mandate, it is only a minimal one. Scientifically, there is little evidence of environmental or other harm caused by such small projects. Hydroelectric proponents are hopeful that Congress, and FERC, will soon take further steps to streamline the combined licensing and environmental processes for larger projects that have proven to be so cumbersome and lengthy.