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Congress Could Find Energy Compromise With Hydropower

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're expecting some changes to the country's energy policy as Republicans take control of the House and Senate. They want to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and to delay or derail the Obama administration's clean air proposals. But there is potential for compromise with hydropower. Dan Boyce with member station KUNC reports.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: In a tiny shack nestled in the rugged peaks of southwestern Colorado, you can hear the sound of hydropower's future. It's not construction crews building some behemoth new dam, it's this...


BOYCE: A generator no bigger than a wheelbarrow, pulling in water from a mountain stream, making enough electricity to run 10 homes. And fans of this little generator say it helped change the course of hydro-history.

BEVERLY RICH: Come on, really? This little, tiny thing is causing all of this?

BOYCE: That's Beverly Rich.

RICH: And I am chairman of the San Juan County Historical Society.

BOYCE: Her society has been taking care of this historic mill site near the town of Silverton for about 15 years. Along with the building came the mill's water source, a pipeline the mill workers used to process precious metals like gold and silver.

RICH: At that time, we kept thinking, gee, there really ought to be a way that we can use that water.

BOYCE: So they started walking through the federal licensing process required to install a power generator.

RICH: And had no idea how really onerous it is for really tiny, tiny, little projects.

BOYCE: Forcing them to jump through the same hoops you'd have to to build another Hoover Dam - not exaggerating. That was the case for a lot of projects trying to generate electricity from water. That is...


BOYCE: ...Until August of 2013.

ED WHITFIELD: The other bill under consideration today is hydropower legislation.

BOYCE: Advocates of small hydropower projects worked up a pair of bills for Congress, and the mill project in Silverton was a poster child. This legislation streamlined the licensing process for small hydro, cutting it down from years to as little as 60 days. For lawmakers on the right, the legislation shrinks federal bureaucracy. And an energy analyst Cameron Brooks says on the left, it means a win for renewable energy without building new dams on America's rivers.

CAMERON BROOKS: I think the days of megaprojects of hydropower are gone.

BOYCE: In fact, the big hydro news out of Washington State this year was the world's largest dam removal - the Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula. So the hydropower industry is focusing more on smaller, noncontroversial projects like that tiny generator in Silverton and adding projects onto already existing dams that currently don't power generators. Hydropower consultant Kurt Johnson says if all of these dams in the U.S. were electrified...

KURT JOHNSON: ...That would create enough power for about 4 million American homes.

BOYCE: Or about as much energy as from a dozen large coal-fired power plants. Johnson applauds the hydropower bills passed by Congress. Still, he thinks it could go even further, describing the bills as a kitchen knife gently cutting the government's red tape.

JOHNSON: We need another round of legislation, perhaps to get a machete and further clear out some of those regulatory barriers.

BOYCE: Hydropower legislation will likely make a reappearance. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski is set to be the new chair of the Senate Energy Committee. She's on record calling hydropower an underdeveloped resource, saying more hydro could support economic growth and create jobs. It's an idea both sides of the aisle may get behind again. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Denver.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story comes to us from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focusing on America's energy issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.