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Hydropower Expansion: The Hydropower Improvement Act of 2011

On March 17, 2011, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), introduced bipartisan legislation to accelerate hydropower projects and development across the country.  The Hydropower Improvement Act has a total of nine co-sponsors, including Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman, Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA).  The bill seeks to substantially increase U.S. hydropower capacity and support local job creation and economic opportunities.

According to Murkowski, the Hydropower Improvement Act of 2011 "achieves common sense regulatory reform, spurs economic growth and takes advantage of hydropower's position as the country's leading source of clean, renewable energy."   Similarly, Senator Bingaman states that the “bill allows us to highlight the potential for development of additional hydropower resources in an environmentally responsible way.”  The bill includes provisions to address the potential for hydropower development from smaller sources that are available even in dry states like New Mexico.
“Additionally,” Bingaman states, “the bill emphasizes the need to improve efficiency at existing facilities and to tap into the hydropower potential at existing non-powered dams.”  Senator Cantwell adds, “This bipartisan bill will help find ways to increase our nation’s hydropower capacity without building new dams, improving air quality while creating new clean energy jobs.”

The bipartisan nature of this bill establishes hydropower as a major area of consensus on energy in the 112th congress.  In fact, according to National Hydropower Association (“NHA”) Executive Director, Linda Church Ciocci, “Hydropower has more multi-region and bipartisan support than any other clean energy technology… this bill recognizes the vital role of hydropower as an affordable, reliable, available, and sustainable domestic energy source.”

The NHA applauds the bill because it will advance project deployment (from conduit and small hydro to non-powered dams to pumped storage) by requiring better interagency coordination; through funding of competitive grants for increased production; and with continued support for research and development activities.  Additionally, as expressed by NHA President, Andrew Munro, this increase in hydropower development supports President Obama’s goal of attaining eighty percent of our nation’s electricity with clean energy.

The key provisions include:

  • Grant Program: Directs the Department of Energy (DOE) to establish a competitive grants program to support efficiency improvements or capacity additions at existing hydropower facilities; adding generation to non-powered dams; addressing aging infrastructure; conduit projects; environmental studies; and environmental mitigation measures.

  • Non-powered Dams and Pumped Storage: Directs the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to explore a potential two-year licensing process for hydropower development at existing non-powered dams and closed-loop pumped storage projects.

  • Conduit and Small Hydro: Allows for conduit projects on federal lands and directs FERC and other federal agencies to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to better coordinate reviews of these projects. Requires regional workshops to reduce barriers and investigate improvements to the regulatory process for small hydro and conduit projects.

  • Federal Hydropower Development: Requires the Departments of Energy and Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers to report to Congress on the implementation of the March 24, 2010 MOU on increasing federal hydropower development. Also directs FERC and the Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) to complete a new MOU to improve the coordination and timeliness of non-federal hydropower development at Bureau projects.

  • R&D Program: Requires DOE to develop and implement a plan to increase the nation’s use of hydropower through research, development, and demonstration initiatives.

  • Studies: Directs DOE to study pumped storage project opportunities on federal and non-federal lands near existing or potential sites of intermittent renewable resource development, and a Department study of hydropower potential from existing conduits. Directs the Bureau of Reclamation to study barriers to non-federal development at Bureau projects.

Local green job creation is also a primary focus of the Act.  According to NHA, a recent study has shown that with the right policies, hydropower could create over 1.4 million jobs by the year 2025.  That however remains to be seen.  Munro thinks the Act will “bolster the positive economic and job creation benefits of hydropower projects, supply chain companies and low-cost hydroelectricity in all fifty states.”    Also by the year 2025, NHA claims that growing hydropower could add an additional 60,000 MW to our nation’s energy capacity.


Tripp Hall is a law student, outdoor enthusiast, and environmental advocate.


University Sturm College of Law

Welcome to the University of Denver Sturm College of Law/Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute Blog, a special section of triplepundit.com! Here, University of Denver Sturm College of Law students will report on emerging, novel and contested land use and development issues from a sustainability perspective. We believe the development of the American West, and indeed the entire planet, necessitates a closer and more responsible look at not only how we use natural resources but how we build our communities and economies. We invite you to comment and engage with us over issues of interest to you. And we invite you to suggest topics for us to research and report on from our unique perspective as law students. But most of all, we invite you to take these ideas and share them with your friends and colleagues so we can all be involved in a more informed and forward-thinking discussion about our future.

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