New laws streamline hydro projects

September 11, 2013 11:12 am
ENTERPRISE — A new law passed by Congress this summer will make installation of small hydropower projects much easier for local landowners.

The Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013 created a new category for conduit applications for hydropower in irrigation pipelines limited to 5 megawatts or less, said Matt King of Community Solutions, Inc.

“This is really important because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission didn’t have a category for dealing with farm and ranch systems,” Nils Christoffersen, Wallowa Resources executive director, said. “The new law is a better avenue for permitting small hydropower systems in rural communities and significantly reduces the expense of design and development work.”

Christoffersen said Oregon’s Sen. Ron Wyden, who serves as the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was instrumental in pushing this legislation. “Unanimous passage is unheard of, but it almost didn’t come to the floor, which would have put it back two years. A similar bill proposed in 2011 didn’t’ pass despite broad support,” Christoffersen said.

The new law requires the Commission to act on applications within 15 days of receiving them. 

“It sped up time for FERC to respond, creating more efficiency and cost reduction on development,” Christoffersen said.

Betsy Kauffman of Energy Trust of Oregon said Oregon Senate Bill 837 also has a big positive effect for hydro projects.

“We are very excited about all of these (new laws) because they take one of the biggest barriers for micro hydro out. It is now significantly less expensive and less time consuming to make one of these conduit projects happen. From our standpoint it’s a really good thing,” Kauffman said.

For many water users, Christoffersen said the regulatory hurdles on the state and federal sides were too much of a pre-development risk, but much of that has been alleviated. What once cost $10,000, primarily in consulting fees, is reduced to about $2,000, a significant savings.

“The short story is hydro is back; it was never gone but its back now more than ever because it’s clean, doesn’t pollute the environment and the energy is renewable,” said Wyden spokesman Tom Towslee. “At the end of the day, hydro remains a major source of power in the Pacific Northwest. Congress and Obama approached our generation to incentivize as many different types of energy as possible. These small hydro projects are just a way to add to that reputation.”

King and Christoffersen said this is a boon for local water users.

“We believe there are a lot of opportunities in Wallowa County. Through the existing irrigation systems there are opportunities to benefit from micro-hydro systems to pay for pumping costs or to capture the value of renewable energy to their operation,” Christoffersen said.

Irrigation pipes follow contour topography terrain here and pressure builds up naturally within these systems. Christoffersen said many systems need pressure reduction valves to keep pipes from bursting. 

“Any place you need one of those you can install a small microhydro turbine — instead of just releasing that energy it can be converted to electricity,” Christoffersen said.

To streamline the process even more for interested water users, Community Solutions can help connect them with funding assistance through Energy Trust of Oregon. Feasibility studies help get a closer look at resource, provide real quotes for capital costs and spell out a full financial assessment including operation and maintenance.

The City of Joseph is considering a project that would cost them $1,000 up front for a study, but could save them 80 to 90 percent of the cost of pumping water through their sewage system, King said.

King said the basic concept is to replace a pressure reduction valve with a micro-hydro generator — a convenient way to develop projects.

“Pressure reduction valves are expensive to put in and expensive to replace, but a hydro turbine does the same thing while turning it into electricity,” King said.

The total payback, with incentives is somewhere between 10 and 12 years, King said, depending on the turbine make and model.

“We have a very high likelihood of capturing 25 percent of the cost of the projects with help from Energy Trust and USDA Rural Development, and other agencies have expressed interest,” Christoffersen said.

Renewable Energy Credits, which helped spur a variety of projects in the past decade, have been on the decline, but the the value is expected to increase as states increase their renewable standards, King said.

“Oregon and Washington are more progressive than federal standards. The local market is likely to be better in what utilities can do, like buy power instead of producing it themselves they can buy RECS to add to their portfolios,” King said.