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Small hydropower has big potential

Monday, August 9, 2010

When most people think of hydropower, they think of huge dams and millions of gallons of water powering entire cities. Very rarely does anyone think of a small stream or an irrigation ditch. But this is exactly where the future of hydropower lies.

Hydropower is the original green energy and remains the largest source of non-carbon emitting energy in the world. It provides low-cost electricity, helps reduce carbon emissions, and accounts for 67 percent of America's total renewable electricity generation.

For generations of western Nebraskans, dams and reservoirs have provided an affordable and reliable energy source. This vision to harness the power of moving water has paid tremendous dividends for Nebraska's agriculture economy. It is vital to ensure future farmers and ranchers continue to enjoy this low-cost, renewable resource.

While we must make the most of our existing hydropower infrastructure, we also must promote new efforts designed to produce more hydropower from smaller sources. The thousands of miles of irrigation canals, pipes, and ditches in the West create an ideal opportunity for new hydropower generation too good to pass on.

Hydropower produced in smaller, man-made water delivery systems does not consume or disrupt water deliveries and has no environmental effect on temperature or aquatic life. In addition, many irrigators are eager to use small projects to reduce electricity costs and generate much-needed revenue to repair aging facilities. Furthermore, increased revenues from the sale of this renewable energy can result in lower irrigation costs to farmers. Finally, irrigation water delivery services can continue while utilizing flows for clean, emissions-free energy production.

As a member of the House Subcommittee on Water and Power, I've had the chance to see the potential of this emerging technology. Using smaller water sources to generate power seems like an easy concept, but unfortunately Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) permitting rules have stifled advancements and innovation in the small hydropower field.

As an example, during a hearing of the Water and Power Subcommittee, we heard testimony from one irrigation district which spent $25,000 navigating FERC regulations and waiting nine months for the federal agency to approve an exemption for a very small 12 kilowatt conduit project which had no environmental impact whatsoever.

Clearly, one-size-fits-all federal regulations make small scale hydropower projects throughout the country financially prohibitive by imposing unnecessary and outdated rules.

During another recent hearing, one witness stated: "Without a statutory change to the FERC process, low-head power will never be cost-effective enough" to be considered by a small irrigation district. As an irrigator from Nebraska told me, small hydropower is simply not feasible given the complexity of the FERC permitting process.

I couldn't agree more, which is why I introduced the Small-Scale Hydropower Enhancement Act of 2010. This legislation would help stimulate the economy of rural America, empower local irrigation districts to generate revenue, and decrease reliance on fossil fuels -- all at no cost to you, the taxpayer.

My bill, which has been endorsed by the American Public Power Association and the Family Farm Alliance, would exempt from FERC jurisdiction any conduit-type hydropower project generating less than one and a half megawatt (as a point of reference, one megawatt is enough energy to serve 1,000 homes). It also would require the Bureau of Reclamation to examine its facilities for more conduit generation opportunities using existing funding.

Though large scale hydropower will continue to play an important part in any all-of-the-above approach to our nation's energy policy, my bill will help irrigators tap into a local resource without any harm to the environment. In this case it pays to think small.


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This sounds very like recommendations I've been advocating for some while now ;basically that more of our electrical energy needs be produced at or very near the point of use appropriate scale photovoltaic and wind turbines would fit into this scheme very nicely.I agree with Rep. Smith that sometimes small is beautiful.Now if he'll only support the investment measures needed to propel such a program forward.

-- Posted by davis_x_machina on Mon, Aug 9, 2010, at 7:54 AM


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U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith
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