Environment & Energy

Tiny Turbines on Pipelines, Canals May Be Large Hydropower Source

March 9, 2018, 12:58 PM

Small hydroelectric companies want to see tiny turbines on water pipelines, ditches, and irrigation canals, something they said could happen if Congress passes a bill lifting some federal licensing requirements for conduit hydropower.

Any hydropower turbine with a capacity of 5 megawatts or greater installed on a water conduit must be licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but smaller turbines are exempt from licenses.

The bill (H.R. 2786) would lift that 5-megawatt exemption cap and shorten a federal review process, allowing larger conduit hydropower generators to be built without a license. The bipartisan bill passed 420-2 in the House last July and is now in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Making conduit hydropower more accessible to landowners by lifting licensing requirements could bring net metering to hydroelectricity similar to rooftop solar, Kurt Johnson, president of Telluride Energy in Telluride, Colo., and the Colorado Small Hydro Association, told Bloomberg Environment.

“Distributed small wind and small solar—they don’t have any federal regulatory oversight,” he said. “You put a solar panel on the roof of your house, you don’t call Washington and wait for permission before you do anything.”

The bill is “an opportunity to install small hydro behind the meter just like rooftop solar,” he said.

Western States’ Hydropower

The U.S. has about 815 megawatts of installed conduit hydropower capacity making up less than 1 percent of the country’s hydropower, Rocío Uría-Martínez, an energy analyst at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, told Bloomberg Environment.

“The vast majority of conduit projects are in the western half of the country, where most irrigation and water supply conduit infrastructure is located,” she said.

The federal government hasn’t conducted a full study of total U.S. conduit hydropower potential, but the Energy Department estimates that small pipes and other conduits eventually could generate 2 gigawatts of electricity nationwide, Uria-Martinez said.

Since Congress allowed the conduit hydropower under 5 megawatts to be built without a license in 2013, FERC has received more than 110 notices of intent to build conduit hydropower generators nationwide. Most of these were filed by local municipalities, private individuals, and irrigation and water districts mainly in California, Colorado, Oregon, and Utah.

FERC expects the bill, if passed, to create a “larger subset” of hydropower projects that the commission wouldn’t have to license, but with few large conduit turbines built during the past few decades, the agency doesn’t know how many projects would be affected by the bill, FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre said in a Feb. 26 letter to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Lifting the 5 megawatt cap would encourage pipeline and other conduit owners to reconsider whether to build hydropower projects, Celeste Fay, a hydropower consultant and owner of Thorndike Energy in Thorndike, Mass., told Bloomberg Environment.

“What we will likely find are conduit projects that were not feasible before because of regulatory burden now can be developed,” she said.

Local, Low-Carbon

The bill’s proponents see it as an opportunity to generate low-carbon electricity locally with little environmental impact.

“Picture a tiny turbine placed in an existing man-made pipe that transports water from a water treatment plant,” bill co-sponsor Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), said in a July 2017 email to bill sponsor Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.). “We can produce clean electric power inside these types of man-made conduits. This exciting technology is readily available and environmentally-friendly, but federal regulations discourage development.”

Representatives for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) declined to comment on the bill March 8.

“Generally speaking, when we’re talking about conduit hydro, we’re talking about tapping into wastewater treatment systems or irrigation canals,” Fay said.

Tapping into the water moving through the pipe and taking energy out of the flow of the water has few environmental challenges associated with it, she said.

Many municipalities and water districts throughout the West may consider building conduit hydro projects if the bill passes, Brenna Vaughn, managing director of the Colorado-based Hydro Research Foundation, told Bloomberg Environment.

“If we can bring new technology into these water delivery systems, it’s a low-cost, affordable new technology that doesn’t impact the environment,” she said. “It’s a no-brainer for productive renewable energy.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill in Washington at bmagill@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bloombergenvironment.com

To read more articles log in. To learn more about a subscription click here.