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Clearing the Permitting Path: NREL’s Hydropower RAPID Toolkit Webinar Shows Stakeholders the Way Forward

July 23, 2020

The complex hydropower regulatory process can be daunting to anyone who must navigate the red tape. To assist both interested community members and experienced hydropower developers, on July 9, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) led a Hydropower Regulatory and Permitting Information Desktop (RAPID) Toolkit webinar. The event gave stakeholders a sneak peek into recent project updates and newly released tools and publications that can shed light on the various federal, state, local, and tribal requirements for hydropower project development.

Developed by NREL with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy Water Power Technologies Office, the Hydropower RAPID Toolkit is hosted on the OpenEI website. And thanks to buy-in from stakeholders, including federal and state regulators, as well as industry, this expansive resource is continually growing.

Created in 2015, the one-of-a-kind toolkit is a one-stop shop for essential permitting information, allowing developers to navigate the complex system of federal and state regulations and permits with ease. And counting more than 20,000 page views over the course of the last fiscal year, this industry resource is clearly in high demand.

Tan, forest green and light blue color-coded states on the United States Map with the text “Choose a State to Explore” above it. Key at the bottom of the map states that only federal regulations are available for tan states, Federal and State Regulations are available for forest green states, and Federal and State Regulations for USACE Non-powered Dams are available for light blue states.

The Hydropower Regulatory and Permitting Information Desktop (RAPID) Toolkit makes it easy for users to search and compare regulatory and permitting requirements across the United States. Image Credit: NREL

Choose Your Own Adventure

Across the country, both hydropower relicensing and new hydropower projects are on the horizon. Participants of the Hydropower RAPID Toolkit webinar were eager to learn about newly released tools, data, and publications that can help streamline the permitting process.

After a brief historical overview, Aaron Levine, NREL senior legal and regulatory analyst, demonstrated the various ways hydropower stakeholders can put the toolkit to use. For example, the regulatory and permitting tool allows users to choose a state from the United States map to explore and compare federal and state regulations and permitting process requirements by jurisdiction. Flowcharts ask a series of questions that help users narrow their search by hydropower project type, eventually leading them to see the entire process for permitting a hydropower project, from start to finish, including a detailed step-by-step guide and links to necessary web resources. 

As an alternative, advanced users can employ a keyword search in the newly updated regulatory and permitting database. Whereas the interactive map asks users to click through a series of questions to define their processes, this search function allows users to conduct targeted searches, narrowing results by technology, topic, federal agency, or jurisdiction. As an added bonus, the tool includes Canadian federal and provincial regulations for those projects where jurisdiction is bordering on the United States, such as in the case of transmission lines.

For even more information, try searching the RAPID Toolkit reference library, a collection of links to regulatory and permitting documents such as permit guidance, manuals, applications, statutes, and regulations. Visit the RAPID Toolkit best practice library, which features high-level descriptions, case studies, templates, and links to view the full NREL reports.

“The updated features to the Hydropower RAPID Toolkit make it so user-friendly,” Levine said. “Anyone can use the tool to reduce project uncertainty and avoid delays.” 

Spotlight on Basinwide Relicensing

In the second half of the webinar, Taylor Curtis, a legal and regulatory analyst at NREL, presented highlights from NREL’s latest Hydropower RAPID Toolkit publication, “Basin-wide Approaches to Hydropower Relicensing: Case Studies and Considerations.” The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agency has authority to increase efficiencies by coordinating different stages of the hydropower relicensing process for multiple projects within a shared river basin.

The potential to increase efficiencies ultimately led the Hydropower RAPID team to identify and compare basinwide relicensing approaches and their documented advantages and challenges. The publication specifically reviewed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hydropower relicensing process and latest best practices on basinwide approaches to relicensing from multiple states.

“Basinwide approaches to relicensing is not a new concept; but with a large number of license expirations approaching, agencies might be inclined to expedite efficiencies using a comprehensive relicensing initiative,” Curtis said.

The webinar drew attention to recent comprehensive basinwide permitting approaches completed in Wisconsin, New York, California, and Maine and the associated advantages and disadvantages of each approach.

On the plus side, basinwide hydropower relicensing could cut down on the time, cost, and complexity associated with issuing a single license. It may align license terms and conditions as well as provide opportunities to create holistic river basin management plans to reduce risk and increase resiliency. Some of the challenges include federal and state agency resource constraints, coordinating multiple hydropower licensees, existing project-specific settlement agreements, and diverse project purposes.

Visit the Hydropower RAPID Toolkit best practices library to learn more about that publication, as well as others, to efficiently navigate the utility-scale renewable energy and transmission permitting process. 

Tools for Tomorrow

The Hydropower RAPID Toolkit is ever-expanding, and future opportunities might include a forum for stakeholders or a "living" document of the best practices or approaches within the current legal framework.

Put the Hydropower RAPID Toolkit to work and scale hydropower permitting challenges with ease.

Subscribe to the RAPID newsletter to receive updates about new additions to the tool and learn more about NREL’s hydropower work.