Federal burdens dampen California’s hydroelectric power potential, PG&E and Turlock Irrigation District officials told lawmakers Tuesday.
They were preaching to the Capitol Hill choir.
Summoned by House Republicans who hope to unleash more of what they called a “clean, renewable and domestic energy resource,” the two California utilities’ representatives described a regulatory thicket that can take many years and millions of dollars to navigate.
“It’s proving to be lengthy, and a bit frustrating, and expensive,” said Steve Boyd, the Turlock Irrigation District’s director of water resources and regulatory affairs.
Debbie Powell, senior director of power generation operations for Pacific Gas and Electric, added that “the processes are overly complex” and “needlessly expensive.”
Boyd cited the Don Pedro Project on the Tuolumne River, which is jointly operated with the Modesto Irrigation District. The project’s current license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 1966 expires this Saturday.
Though the districts began the renewal process in 2009, and have since spent more than $20 million on assorted studies, Boyd explained that several temporary, year-long extensions of the original license will be required before a full renewal is obtained.
“We’ve been at this seven years,” Boyd said.
In a similar vein, Powell reported that PG&E’s last 10 hydroelectric license renewals took between seven and 28 years and racked up associated costs from $2 million to over $20 million.
“Something’s got to be wrong with that part of the process,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
The roughly 90-minute hearing before the House water, power and oceans subcommittee was largely a one-sided affair, with three of the four witnesses representing utilities and with no government agencies represented. Traditional environmental perspectives were vastly outnumbered, though not absent altogether.
“When hydropower is improperly sited or operated, it can have major impacts,” cautioned Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. “It can cause major harm to fish and wildlife, water quality, recreational opportunities and tribal lands.”
California is currently home to some 287 hydroelectric projects, operated by the state or federal governments or by utilities like PG&E or the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. In 2014, hydropower accounted for 6 percent of in-state electricity production, down from 12 percent in 2013.
Relicensing is a hassle, witnesses agreed. A study of 16 hydropower licenses issued in 2011 by FERC found that the average time from filing to licensing was 3.6 years, with the longest wait lasting eight 8 years.
“What does this licensing process get us?” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, asked, rhetorically.
It’s unclear, though, what Congress might do about it.
In 2013, President Barack Obama signed into law two bills intended to streamline the approval process for small hydroelectric projects.
While a number of hydropower-related bills have been introduced since 2015, many deal with extending construction deadlines for specific projects in states including Virginia, Montana and North Carolina.
With a broader brush, California water bills offered by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, in the House and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the Senate could affect some hydropower operations, though the bills’ long-term prospects remain in question.
The most sweeping revisions could come as part of a broader energy bill, a version of which the Republican-controlled House passed on largely a party line vote last December. Costa was one of only nine Democrats to vote for it.
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget has threatened a presidential veto, contending that the revisions “would undermine” FERC’s ability to protect “safety, fish and wildlife, water quality and conservation, and a range of additional natural resources and cultural values.”