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No License is Needed for Small, Off-Grid Hydroelectric Systems

Posted by Todd Griset, Guest Contributor

Mar 27, 2016 4:11:06 AM

The ruling, triggered by a Massachusetts couple's desire to convert a water mill to power generation, is a big win for micro-hydro.hydroelectric_site_massachusetts.jpg

As reported by PretiFlaherty:

Federal hydropower regulators have granted reconsideration of a 2015 order finding licensing required for an off-grid micro-hydropower project proposed in Massachusetts.  Based on newly submitted evidence that the proposed project would not be connected to an interstate grid, the order granting reconsideration finds that Section 23(b)(1) of the Federal Power Act does not require licensing of the proposed Egnaczak Net Zero Hydro Project.

The case involves a project proposed by Kenneth and Susan Egnaczak, to be located at an existing water-powered mill complex on the Hoosic River in Cheshire, Massachusetts.  The so-called "Egnaczak Net Zero Hydro Project" would have a total generating capacity of 10.7 kilowatts.  The power would be used at a home and workshop proposed for construction along the river.

Under Section 23(b)(1) of the Federal Power Act, an entity proposing a hydropower project must generally file with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission either a hydropower license application, or a Declaration of Intention to determine if the proposed project requires a license.  The Egnaczaks filed a Declaration of Intention for the project in February 2015.  On September 11, 2015, Commission staff issued an order finding that the Federal Power Act requires a license to be issued for the project's construction, maintenance, and operation.

Section 23(b)(1) of the Federal Power Act requires non-federal off-grid hydroelectric systems to be licensed if they fall into any of four categories: (1) is located on “navigable waters of the United States;” (2) occupies lands or reservations of the United States; (3) uses surplus water or water power from a federal dam; or (4) is located on a non-navigable stream which is subject to the authority of Congress under the Commerce Clause, affects the interests of interstate or foreign commerce, and is constructed or enlarged after August 26, 1935.

In its September 2015 order on the Egnaczak project, Commission staff analyzed the facts as applied to these facts.  On category 1, staff found that there is insufficient evidence to determine whether the Hoosic River is navigable at the project site.  Staff readily dispensed with categories 2 and 3, finding that the project would neither occupy any public lands or reservations of the United States nor use surplus water or waterpower from a Federal government dam.

In September, staff found that the project fell into the fourth category.  In the order, staff noted that it would be located on a non-navigable Commerce Clause stream, would be constructed after 1935, and would affect the interests of interstate commerce because the project would offset both electrical and heating needs for the applicants’ home and workshop that would have been otherwise supplied by the interstate grid.  The order cited judicial precedent, noting, "It is well settled that small hydroelectric projects that are connected to the interstate grid affect interstate commerce by displacing power from the grid, and the cumulative effect of the national class of these small projects is significant for purposes of FPA section 23(b)(1)." Staff therefore determined that the project requires licensing under FPA section 23(b)(1).

But on January 6, 2016, the applicants filed a request for reconsideration and additional evidence in support of their argument that the project does not require licensing.  This evidence focused on the fact that the project would not be connected to the interstate grid and thus would not affect interstate commerce.  As later described by the Commission:

They state that, because neither their home nor workshop has been constructed, they have no existing grid connection. Further, they explain that the project alone will power their home and workshop. The applicants state that the project would produce hydro-mechanical power using a waterwheel, Archimedes Screw, or turbine. The mechanical power would be connected to the hydro generator units to produce electricity or to power rotating equipment, such as a sawmill. In addition, the applicants state that they will use backup power from a fossil fuel electric generator and storage batteries, which would be charged by the hydro generators or the fossil fuel electric generator.

In a March 24, 2016 order, the Commission staff found that the applicants had demonstrated that the Net Zero Project would not be connected to an interstate grid.  That order finds that the micro-hydro project would not displace power that would otherwise be supplied by the grid and thus would not affect interstate commerce.  As a result, it concludes that "section 23(b)(1) of the FPA does not require licensing of the proposed Net Zero Project."

The March 24 order does include a warning: "if the project or the applicants’ unconstructed home or workshop are connected to the interstate grid in the future, section 23(b)(1) of the FPA would require licensing and the Commission could require the applicants to apply for a license under section 4(g) of the FPA."

Thus in at least this one case, the off-grid nature of the micro-hydro project was a critical factor in the order finding that Section 23(b)(1) of the Federal Power Act does not require licensing of the proposed Egnaczak Net Zero Hydro Project.  The key to the revised finding that the project would have no effect on interstate commerce appears to be the fact that power would be consumed in buildings not yet built, with no existing grid tie

Link to the original story in The Berkshire Eagle.

Image: The Berkshire Eagle

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