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Increasing hydropower hits a bipartisan sweet spot

February 11, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Energy will be a key issue for the new Congress, and hydropower is one of the few areas of agreement between Democrats and Republicans. Legislative changes have made it easier to develop small-scale hydroelectric projects and both parties find it advantageous. Special correspondent Dan Boyce of Inside Energy reports on what else proponents are seeking from lawmakers.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The topic of energy often fuels political debate.

But, as our next report shows, water might be putting out some of those fires. The U.S. Department of Energy says hydropower has the potential to generate electricity for more than four million homes.

Our story comes from Dan Boyce of Inside Energy. That’s a public media collaboration working with the NewsHour.

DAN BOYCE, Inside Energy: This is what a lot of us think of when we hear the word hydropower, but in a lot of ways, this is the old face of hydro in the U.S., and this is the new face.

So, Bev, this is all it is.

BEVERLY RICH, San Juan County Historical Society: This is it.

DAN BOYCE: A generator the size of a wheelbarrow pulling in water from a mountain stream, generating enough power for about 10 homes. This little generator has helped change the course of hydro-history.

BEVERLY RICH: Come on, really?  This little, tiny thing in a 5-foot-by-10-foot building is causing all of this?

DAN BOYCE: Beverly Rich and other members of the volunteer San Juan County Historical Society started taking care of this old mill site about 15 years ago, a mill with a water pipeline the workers used decades ago to help process precious metals like gold and silver.

BEVERLY RICH: At that time, we kept thinking, gee, there really ought to be a way we can use that water.

DAN BOYCE: They started trying to get the federal licensing needed to install a power generator.

BEVERLY RICH: And had no idea how really onerous it is for really tiny, tiny, little projects. We were having to jump through the same hoops that if you’re going to build Boulder Dam.

DAN BOYCE: That’s the old name for the Hoover Dam. And she’s not exaggerating. A lot of projects generating electricity from water had to go through the same federal scrutiny as the giant dams of old, that is, until August of 2013.

REP. ED WHITFIELD (R), Kentucky: The other bill under consideration today is hydropower legislation.

DAN BOYCE: Advocates of small hydropower projects worked up a pair of bills for Congress. And the mill project in Silverton was on full display as a prime example of their problem.

KURT JOHNSON, Hydropower Consultant: It’s a long overdue, cost-effective, commonsense measure.

DAN BOYCE: This legislation streamlined the federal licensing process for small hydropower projects, cutting it down from years to as little as 60 days. And the legislation didn’t just pass.

BEVERLY RICH: Incredibly enough, in this — in this horrible time of gridlock, it passed unanimously.

DAN BOYCE: The bills hit this rare bipartisan sweet spot, says energy analyst Cameron Brooks. For Republican lawmakers, the legislation shrank federal bureaucracy.

CAMERON BROOKS, Energy Analyst: It’s really cutting through red tape and helping push forward something that can create jobs.

DAN BOYCE: And for Democrats, it meant a win for renewable energy and, most importantly, doing so without putting new dams on America’s rivers.

The result?  More small projects like the one in Silverton are getting approved more quickly. So, for the small hydropower industry, national lawmakers really did their job. There are still problems for hydro, though. And so advocates are still looking for more still from Capitol Hill.

KURT JOHNSON: This is a great example of enormous amount of mechanical energy, which is currently completely wasted.

DAN BOYCE: Hydropower consultant Kurt Johnson testified at the congressional hearing on the 2013 bills. As helpful as he thinks that legislation was, he compares it to gently taking a kitchen knife to the government’s red tape.

KURT JOHNSON: We need another round of legislation, perhaps to get a machete, and further clear out some of those regulatory barriers.

DAN BOYCE: For starters, hydropower advocates want bigger production tax credits, like wind power used to enjoy, but those credits came to an end of last year. And many Republicans express reservations in continuing them further.

Also, as far as Johnson is concerned, for little generators like the mill in Silverton, it shouldn’t just be a matter of reducing the licensing process.

KURT JOHNSON: If projects are tiny and non-controversial, why is the federal government involved at all?

DAN BOYCE: Legislation to ease hydropower expansion will likely make a reappearance in the new Congress. Why?  Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has taken over as the new Republican chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

She’s on record as a hydro-booster, saying it’s an undeveloped resource and could do more to support economic development and job creation.

As far as the country’s energy needs, there is vast potential. This is Button Rock Dam in Northern Colorado. There’s no generator hooked up here. If there were:

KURT JOHNSON: It would generate enough electricity to power about 500 average local homes.

DAN BOYCE: And that project would still be considered small hydropower. Projects more than twice as big are lumped in as small.

There are some 80,000 dams in this country, small, and medium-sized and giant. Right now, only 3 percent are being used to generate hydropower, so there’s a lot of room for growth, equal to the power generated by about a dozen coal-fired power plants.

Dan Boyce in Denver for the PBS NewsHour.

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