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The federal government, through the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), operates 133 hydroelectric power plants—representing 8% of the country’s hydroelectric facilities. The private sector, public utilities, and state or local government operate the other 92% of U.S. hydroelectric facilities.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulates most non-federal hydropower projects. FERC has the authority to issue licenses to construct, operate, and maintain non-federal hydropower projects, pursuant to the Federal Power Act (16 U.S.C. 791 et seq.). Although developers of hydropower facilities located on non-federally owned conduits with installed capacities up to 40 MW are not required to be licensed or exempted by FERC, they must obtain an authorization from FERC to construct a Qualifying Conduit Facility. Small conduit hydroelectric facilities up to 40 MW (16 USC § 823a(b)) and small hydroelectric projects of 10 MW or less (16 USC § 2705) are eligible for an exemption from the FERC licensing process.
All developers may apply for a FERC license using the default Integrated Licensing Process (ILP) and under appropriate circumstances may apply for and receive authorization from FERC to use the Traditional Licensing Process (TLP) or the Alternative Licensing Process (ALP). The three licensing processes differ mainly in how they coordinate the applicant’s (developer’s) pre-filing activities (i.e., before filing the license application), especially the study plan development, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, and other federal and state agency processes. The goal of each licensing process is to develop a complete record of information to support FERC’s licensing decision, which must take into account protection, mitigation, and enhancement of cultural, fish, and wildlife resources.
The Federal Power Act (FPA) specifies extensive federal and state agency participation in the licensing process. When making a licensing decision, FERC considers the outcome of the consultation process mandated by Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act and project reviews required under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The FPA requires license applications to contain a 401 Water Quality Certification. 18 CFR §4.34(b)(5). FERC also considers a number of other environmental, cultural, biological, water quality, land, geological, recreational, and aesthetic impacts of a hydropower project in making a licensing decision.
Federal agencies or Indian tribes have mandatory or optional authority to issue conditions and/or recommendations for the FERC license regarding developmental and non-developmental values and comprehensive plans to protect and mitigate damages to fish and wildlife resources:
- Section 4(e) of the FPA authorizes federal land managers to impose mandatory conditions on a FERC license for hydropower projects located on federal reservations.
- Section 10(a) of the FPA requires FERC to consider a project’s consistency with the federal and state comprehensive plans for improving, developing, or conserving a waterway. Whereas 4(e) conditions are mandatory, license conditions submitted under 10(a) are not mandatory, but recommendations.
- Section 18 of the FPA authorizes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries to prescribe fishway passage requirements.
- Sections 10(j) and 30(c) of the FPA require FERC to consult with state agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries) who are responsible for the oversight and protection of fish, wildlife, and botanical resources. Based upon their review of the hydropower project and analysis of any study results, the agencies develop Section 10(j) recommendations for FERC-licensed projects. 16 USC 803(j). The FPA also authorizes the state and federal fish and wildlife agencies to issue mandatory terms and conditions for hydropower projects that are exempt from FERC licensing under Section 30(c). 16 USC 823a(c).
Role of other Federal Agencies
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the Department of Defense (DOD), and federal land management agencies may require additional review and licensing processes for hydropower development. Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, USACE must authorize any discharge of dredge or fill material into waters of the U.S., including wetlands. Any proposed project that will affect navigable waters of the United States must obtain authorization from USACE under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act (33 USC 403). In addition, any proposed project that will alter or utilize a USACE structure must obtain authorization from USACE under Section 14 of the Rivers and Harbors Act (33 USC 408). All non-federal hydropower projects sited on BOR conduits and BOR dams authorized for federal power development, and not requiring a FERC license, require a BOR Lease of Power Privilege. 1992 Memorandum of Understanding between the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation; (Section 9(c) of the Reclamation Project Act of 1939 (RPA, Section 9(c)) as amended by the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act of 2013). All other sites (i.e., BOR dams not authorized for federal power development) require a FERC License/Exemption. In addition, before developing a hydropower project on federal land or a project that utilizes a federal resource, a right-of-way or use authorization may be required. Depending on location of the project, the relevant land management agency may be the BOR, the United States Forest Service, the DOD, the Bureau of Land Management or the National Park Service.