RAPID Changes Are Coming for Hydropower

Hydropower’s Regulatory Roadmap Adapts to Biden Administration Policy Changes

Aug. 4, 2021

Hoover Dam viewed from above
Launched in 2015, the Hydropower RAPID Toolkit collects and organizes the latest regulations that protect air and water quality, preserve wildlife habitats, prevent soil erosion, and shield valuable cultural and recreational resources. Photo courtesy of Brandi Foster

Hydropower—electricity generated from flowing waters—accounts for 38% of the renewable energy produced in the United States, serving all but two states (Delaware and Mississippi). But in the next two decades, the licenses of more than 600 hydroelectric projects will expire. If they all go dark, the country would lose the amount of clean energy needed to power about 5.5 million homes—equivalent to the entire state of Pennsylvania.

The solution might seem easy: Renew the licenses. But the renewal process can be like wading upstream against a current of necessary but often overwhelming regulations. So, to help the hydropower industry not only maintain this renewable bounty but also modernize old projects and build new projects faster and for less cost, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) created the Hydropower Regulatory and Permitting Information Desktop (RAPID) Toolkit. The Toolkit is an interactive, searchable online database of federal, state, tribal, and local regulations—like a digital motorboat for carrying hydropower upriver.

On July 8, 2021, two NREL researchers—Aaron Levine, a senior legal and regulatory analyst, and Taylor Curtis, a regulatory and policy analyst—held a webinar to present the latest updates to the RAPID Toolkit, focusing primarily on which hydropower regulations the Biden administration might alter in the coming months.

“A lot is still up in the air,” Levine said. “We’re tracking these agency updates so we can update the RAPID Toolkit and our stakeholders.”

Launched in 2015, the Hydropower RAPID Toolkit collects and organizes the latest regulations that protect air and water quality, preserve wildlife habitats, prevent soil erosion, and shield valuable cultural and recreational resources. Hydropower developers can search by state or by type of regulation or project—conventional, micro hydro, or pumped storage (which holds energy for future use). The Hydropower RAPID Toolkit is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office.

To keep the toolkit up to date, Levine and Curtis track rule and regulation changes, add new regulations and policies published by agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and curate their massive library so users can find pertinent information—fast. Users can, for example, click on their state to discover which federal or state permits they might need to launch their project. Clicking on a specific permit lands users in a flowchart with questions like “Does the project require access to private land?” Levine calls this a “step-by-step process to obtain approval.”

In a webinar held last year, Curtis presented a case study on how to expedite relicensing for hydropower projects that share a single river basin. Some issues—like shared basins—affect most hydropower developers and warrant greater attention. The RAPID team periodically collects input from developers to learn which issues to research. Then, they publish technical reports with detailed case studies and best practices (like tips for small hydropower developers) that provide industrywide guidance. To date, these reports have been downloaded more than 7,500 times.

In this year’s webinar, Curtis discussed the Biden-Harris administration’s regulatory changes that she and Levine are tracking, including changes to the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Endangered Species Act. These revisions could enhance protections for U.S. waterways and water quality, increase state and tribe authority to protect their waters, and provide further protections for endangered species and migratory birds like eagles, falcons, and hummingbirds. Curtis also shared potential state regulatory changes in Vermont, New York, and Oregon that could impact current and new hydropower projects. Once these regulations are confirmed, Levine and Curtis will update the toolkit, so developers can find the most recent federal and state policies in just a few clicks.

And those clicks are climbing.

“Hydropower views continue to grow,” Levine said. In 2020, the hydropower section of the RAPID website welcomed about 2,600 users. (The entire site saw close to 63,000.) Most visitors are congressional or federal agency staff, academic researchers, or environmental and regulatory consulting firms, which means the tool serves far more than just hydropower developers. But more hydrokinetic project developers might visit the site in the future.

Hydrokinetic projects generate energy from fast-moving currents, tides, and waves, often using fish-friendly, underwater turbines instead of large dams. Levine and Curtis both predict these projects will continue to grow in number.

“If you follow the dollars,” Curtis said, “there’s a lot being sent to R&D for hydrokinetics. That seems like what we’ll be seeing in the future.”

As of 2021, hydropower produces 6%–7% of the nation’s total energy. But the Department of Energy estimates that new and modernized projects could more than double hydroelectricity and storage capacity by 2050.

That goal still lies beyond a steady stream of regulations, but RAPID can help hydropower get there. RAPIDly.


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

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