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Information about Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Private Hydropower

written by: Baby Rani • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 1/25/2011

New motivations have resulted in a number of tenders to construct small hydropower projects in the U.S. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Security Program for Small Hydropower Projects is implementing welcome change to assist in the licensing procedure.

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    Hydropower in any country is regulated both during the construction and operational stages. Since the safety of hydropower and dams is a significant part of FERC’s mandate, safety gets a top priority. Prior to construction, the commission staff inspects and sanctions programs and stipulations for the project. Staff engineers are responsible for both examining the project and then for inspecting it on a regular basis.

    Prompt approval for any type of energy scheme is uncommon. This is true in the case of small hydropower, too. (Some cases have required more than fifteen years for approval.) This has been a major restraint in the growth of significant private energy substructure in the U.S.

    Nevertheless a novel, reassuring movement is arising in the hydropower industry. Recognizing the requirement for clean, inexhaustible energy, FERC is implementing plans to hasten the licensing procedure for small hydropower projects.

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    Image: Pandrcutt - Rio Blanco base of the Guardia Vieja Hydroelectric Project, part of Chile Hornitos (Click to enlarge)

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    Rio Blanco base of the Guardia Vieja Hydroelectric
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    Exemptions with Regard to Small Hydropower Projects

    Conduit Exclusions

    A small passage hydroelectric installation which is around 15 MW, and in certain projects of a municipality of a capacity up to 40 MW, using an artificial conduit functioning chiefly for non-hydroelectric aims may be entitled for a conduit exception. The applicant should have the realty (real estate) concerns essential to formulate and control the project, or an alternative to obtain the interests. The installation cannot use federal lands. The channel on which the scheme is being developed is not considered a project work. Requests for exceptions of small hydroelectric conduits are unconditionally free from the obligation for an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement to be arranged by the Commission. On the other hand, this does not signify that the Commission cannot require an EA or EIS to be developed if the proposed project seems to have contrary consequences on the environment.

    5-MW Exceptions

    A small-scale hydroelectric project of 5 MW or less might be entitled to the 5 MW exclusion. The applicant must intend to set up on or lend capacity to an existing project situated on a non-federal dam constructed before 2005, or even at a natural water feature. This exemption is allowed for projects which are situated on federal lands, but they should under no circumstance be situated at a federal dam. The claimant must have all the realty interests or an alternative to hold stakes in any non-federal grounds.


    A permit from the Commission is needed to build, operate, and maintain a non-federal hydroelectric project. Such projects must have the following features:

    (a) Be situated on crossable waters of the United States;

    (b) Reside on U.S. lands;

    (c) Make use of excess water or water authority from a U.S. government dam; or

    (d) Be situated on a watercourse above which Congress has trade Clause authority;

    (e) Where project building or elaboration took place on or after August 26, 1935.

    Such project should also consider effects on the interests of interstate or overseas commerce. Licenses may be given for a period which might be up to 50 years and must be renewed toward the end of each period. A license provides the licensee with the ability to hold lands or other permissions required to build, operate, and preserve the hydroelectric project.

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    There is no doubt that we are at crossroads with regard to the views of hydropower’s future from its past and present dictatorial environment. The reaction to present disputes and altering actuality will, to a great degree, decide the importance of small hydropower as a significant element of the U.S.'s inexhaustible energy content in the future. Present advances for licensing onhand projects seem to be allowing for preferred tractability, with the option of enhanced efficiencies owing to the superior class of data obtainable for projects with important post-ECPA (Electronic Consumers Protection Act) procedures.

    On the other hand, the scarcity of propositions for new small and additive capacity to established hydropower add-ons is a red flag. Large fiscal and regulative roadblocks are blocking growth of new generation, formulating less than 3% which is equal to 560 MW out of 21,000 MW, of the onhand small conservative hydropower not needing the building of new dams, which does not enthuse policy-makers. An appraisal of present policies and processes to assure they are not producing unneeded hurdles to enhancing this existing capacity would be sensible.


    Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

    Russell Ray - Regulating Small Hydro

    Stephen D. Padula - Hydro Regulation: Current Realities, Future Needs.