WENATCHEE — A federal law hailed for putting the development of new hydropower back on the national renewable-energy scene won’t immediately benefit any new local projects around North Central Washington, experts said this week.
But local efforts to explore some of the kinds hydropower encouraged by the law were already underway.
“I wish it would have been in place five years ago, and we could have taken advantage of it,” John Grubich, manager of the Okanogan County PUD, said Wednesday of H.R. 267, the “Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013. It was one of two key pieces of hydropower legislation signed into law Aug. 9 by President Barack Obama. “It’s a great bill for small hydro.”
After some eight years of studies, negotiations and planning at a cost of about $10 million, the Okanogan PUD won federal approval last month to restore power generation Enloe Dam, a long inactive structure on the Similkameen River, 3.5 miles northwest of Oroville.
The project includes building a new, 9-megawatt, two-generator powerhouse for the 1920 dam. It would have qualified for a speedy 2-year federal licensing process or possibly even a complete exemption from federal oversight had the new law already been on the books.
“The timeline is the most critical thing, because for us time is money,” Grubich said. “For certain, we’d be in construction now, and probably we’d be in production now.”
The law passed Congress with bipartisan support, springboarded by a Department of Energy study and an endorsement by unlikely partners — the National Hydropower Association and American Rivers, a group that has been critical of Snake River dams.
The study transformed hydropower’s prevailing image as a stodgy, tapped-out resource, proponents say. It concludes that some 12,000 megawatts of untapped hydropower potential exists is the U.S., mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, by adding generation to dams and other structures, including irrigation canals.
That’s enough electricity to power an estimated 7.2 million to 9.6 million Northwest homes.
It’s also an on-demand, no-carbon energy source that can fill in for the inconsistencies of wind and solar generation, proponents say.
The new law, and a sister law for small federal Bureau of Reclamation projects, streamline hydroelectric development in “conduit” projects, such as pumped-storage systems and irrigation canals.
It also comes too late to facilitate the efforts of the basin’s three irrigation districts to explore adding six additional powerplants to the Bureau’s huge Columbia Basin Project canal system, John O’Callaghan, operations manager for the Bureau’s Ephrata field office, said Wednesday.
The three districts recently received federal permits to launch preliminary studies, he said. It’s too soon to know if the new law could facilitate additional projects.
“It’s a big, complicated issue, and there is lots of stuff to sort out,” he said. “It’s very early in terms of this legislation.”
The Bureau’s Columbia Basin canals already contain seven hydroplants that date to the early 1980s. All are owned by the basin’s irrigation districts. Two of the plants, the 9.4-megawatt Quincy Chute project and the 6.5-megawatt Potholes East Canal Headworks project are operated by the Grant County PUD.
Officials from both the Grant and Chelan County PUDs said market and economic conditions aren’t yet right to make additional small powerplant projects feasible.