Data Access, Analytics, and Workforce Development

Project Name: An Examination of the Hydropower Licensing and Federal Authorization Process   

Project Team: National Renewable Energy Laboratory (lead), Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Kearns & West

Lead Recipient Location: Golden, Colorado

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In October 2021, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory published a report, An Examination of the Hydropower Licensing and Federal Authorization Process, that examines the factors that have the greatest impact on the hydropower licensing process. Although the report does not propose any specific recommendations to change the current hydropower licensing and authorization process, the findings will aid decision makers in identifying areas for potential reform. It is also intended to help policymakers, regulators, and other key decision makers—including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, federal land management agencies, federal and state resource agencies, and Indian tribes—engage in informed discussions with hydropower industry stakeholders such as utilities, developers, consultants, trade associations, and nongovernmental organizations.

The report’s key findings are:

  • Greater environmental complexity can lead to longer licensing timelines, especially for relicensing.
  • Licensing costs often disproportionately impact new and/or smaller projects.
  • Disagreements in negotiations over environmental studies can prolong licensing timelines.
  • Incomplete and/or inadequate information can result in longer licensing timelines and disagreements.
  • The Integrated Licensing Process has the shortest and least variable timeline of the three licensing processes.
  • The hydropower permitting process differs between countries and with other national energy or water infrastructure processes.
  • The U.S. hydropower licensing process can improve environmental coexistence with hydroelectric plants.

In the next two decades, more than 600 hydroelectric projects’ licenses will expire. If those projects fail to be relicensed, the United States will lose the amount of clean energy needed to power about 5.5 million homes—equivalent to the entire state of Pennsylvania. Further, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that new and modernized hydropower projects could grow from 101 to nearly 150 gigawatts of hydroelectricity and storage capacity by 2050. These new findings about the hydropower licensing and relicensing process can help speed progress toward a clean energy future.

Data Access, Analytics, and Workforce Development Projects