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Basin-wide Approaches to Hydropower Relicensing: Case Studies and Considerations

This report summarizes the FERC relicensing process for non-federal hydropower projects, analyzes FERC-licensed projects with license expiration dates from 2018-2037, discusses FERC’s authority to coordinate license terms of hydropower projects within a shared river basin and provides basin-wide case studies and considerations to hydropower relicensing.


In the United States there are 1,043 active FERC-licensed hydroelectric projects with a total capacity of 56,097 MW. Of those, 647 with a total capacity of 21,870 MW have license expiration dates from 2018-2037. The expected workload in conjunction with the time, cost, and complexity associated with issuing a single new license has led to initiatives that aim to increase the efficiency of the relicensing process. Federal and state regulators and licensees in California, Maine, New York, and Wisconsin have begun to develop approaches to look at hydropower relicensing as part of a larger system—a river basin. These basin-wide approaches seek to coordinate different stages of the relicensing process for multiple projects at the same time. The goal of these basin-wide approaches is to increase the efficiency of the relicensing process and allow for a more comprehensive analysis of the cumulative impacts of the projects within the basin. These innovative approaches to relicensing could also reduce the workload for regulators and costs associated with relicensing.

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FERC Hydropower Relicensing Process

Obtaining a new license (relicense) from FERC for the continued operation (30 to 50 years) of an existing hydropower facility is often a complex multi-year regulatory process that requires review by federal and state regulators, Indian tribes, and the public. At least 5 years, but not more than 5.5 years, before the license expiration date, a licensee must file a notice of intent (NOI) with FERC stating whether they intend to seek a new license. 18 C.F.R. § 5.5. At the same time as filing an NOI, the licensee must file a pre-application document (PAD). 18 C.F.R. § 5.6. The PAD must include existing information about the project facilities, operation, and known or potential impacts on environmental quality, including protection, mitigation, and enhancement measures. 18 C.F.R. § 5.6. The PAD serves as the basis for the study plan, license application, and environmental documents that follow. After filing the PAD, the licensee must develop a study plan and conduct studies to supplement the existing information. 18 C.F.R. §§ 5.15; 18 C.F.R. §§ 4.38(c); 18 C.F.R. § 16.8(c). Typically, studies are undertaken according to the study plan within 3–3.5 years before applying for a new license.

At least 2 years before a license expires, the licensee must file an application for a new license (relicense) with FERC. 16 C.F.R. § 808(c). The new license application must include project information and synthesize the study results and consultation requirements describing the project design, operation, and environmental impacts of the project. 18 C.F.R. § 4.32. Before issuing a new license, FERC assesses the hydropower facility, in accordance with the Federal Power Act (FPA), to ensure the facility represents the best public use of waterway resources. 16 U.S.C. § 797(e). For more information on the FERC Hydropower Relicensing process, see the full report and:

FERC Hydropower Overview:
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FERC License Expirations

Of the 1,043 active FERC-licensed hydropower projects, 647 projects with a total combined capacity of 21,870 MW have license expiration dates from 2018–2037. Figure 1 illustrates the number of FERC-licensed hydropower projects and authorized capacity due to expire in 5-year periods from 2018–2037. There are 190 projects with license expiration dates from 2023–2027 with a total combined capacity of 7,940 MW. In 2026 alone, 48 project licenses expire (5,058 MW). From 2033–2037, 249 project licenses expire (4,428 MW). The highest volume of expiration dates is in 2034 with 59 projects.

FERC License Expiration Dates 2019.png

Figure 1. FERC-licensed projects with expiration dates from 2018-2037

Expected Relicensing Workload

Figure 2 illustrates the total number of FERC filings (NOI or an application for a new license) expected through September 2032 in 5-year periods as of July 2017. This totals 1,012 expected relicensing filings through September 2032. Of those total filings, FERC expects that 551 NOIs with PADs and 461 applications for a new license. The highest number of filings is expected between 2028 and September 2032.

Expected FERC Relicensing Filings 2018-2032.png

Figure 2. Expected FERC relicensing filings from 2018-2032

Projects in a Shared River Basin or Sub-Basin

Figure 3 illustrates the number of hydropower projects with FERC license expiration dates from 2018–2037 within a shared river basin or sub-basin in the 10 states with the highest number of projects that have FERC licenses due to expire through 2037 (i.e., New York, California, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Maine, Idaho, Vermont, Michigan, Washington and Utah).

FERC-Licensed Projects within a Shared Watershed.png

Figure 3. FERC-licensed projects with license expiration dates from 2018-2037 within a shared river basin or sub-basin

Coordinating FERC License Terms for Hydropower Projects Within a Shared River Basin

At the time of relicense, FERC may set a license term to coordinate with other projects in the same waterway or a licensee may request a license term extension or acceleration to align a project’s expiration date with other projects in a shared river basin. Aligning the relicensing schedule with other project(s) can reduce the volume of work that is required for two separate relicensing efforts that are on independent schedules. In addition, FERC has found that coordinating the license expiration dates of projects within a shared waterway can allow for a more comprehensive analysis of the cumulative environmental impacts of the projects. 18 C.F.R. § 2.23; Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – Policy Statement on Use of Reserved Authority in Hydropower Licenses to Ameliorate Cumulative Impacts (Docket No. RM93-25-000). For more information and case studies on coordinating FERC license terms for hydropower projects within a shared river basin, see the full report.

Basin-Wide Considerations to Relicense

Basin-wide approaches have been used in various aspects of hydropower development for decades. Federal and state regulators, licensees, and other stakeholders have a long history of utilizing basin-wide approaches for resource planning and assessments as well as for resource review and impact analyses.

Most recently, federal and state resource agencies and licensees have begun to apply a basin-wide approach to aspects of the hydropower relicensing process. With more than half of the FERC-licensed hydropower fleet coming up for relicense, initiatives in states such as California, Maine, New York, and Wisconsin seek to improve the efficiency of the relicensing process. Regulators and licensees in these states are working together to coordinate different aspects of the relicensing process for multiple hydropower projects within a shared watershed or basin.

These basin-wide approaches involve different levels of coordination and collaboration, which seek to improve the efficiency of the relicensing process as well as allow for a more comprehensive analysis of the cumulative impacts of the projects within the basin. Initiatives in California and Maine seek to coordinate the review and issuance of Section 401 water quality certifications for multiple hydropower projects within a shared basin that are owned and operated by the same licensee. While initiatives in New York and Wisconsin take a more comprehensive basin-wide approach to relicensing by coordinating the timelines of multiple hydropower projects owned by different licensees. For information on initiatives in California, Maine, New York and Wisconsin, see the case studies provided in the full report.

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