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Breaking News: Hydro Currents

U.S. Supreme Court rejects Montana state decision

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned a Montana State Supreme Court decision that would have required energy provider PPL Montana to pay US$41 million in back rent for the use of riverbeds under portions of three Montana rivers.

PPL Montana acquired lands for 10 hydro facilities along the Missouri, Madison and Clark Fork rivers and pays rent to the U.S. government for the use of adjoining federal lands.

In the early 2000s, Montana claimed it owned the riverbeds used by these projects and was entitled to rent. PPL Montana argued that when the state was admitted to the Union in 1891, the river segments now occupied were non-navigable and therefore the underlying riverbeds remained federal property. The Montana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected this argument, using PPL Montana v. Montana to establish that state title of riverbeds outside the original 13 states must be determined by the practical navigability of particular river segments at the time of the state's admission to the Union.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion explains that the riverbed title principles are a corollary of the "equal footing" doctrine, which assures newly-admitted states enjoy the same sovereign rights to riverbeds as the original states.

It also distinguishes the navigability test used for state title determinations from the test used to define the scope of federal regulatory authority under the Commerce Clause, and reaffirms prior precedents that navigability be determined segment-by-segment as of the time of admission to the Union.

Maine governor's energy proposals could benefit large hydro organizations

Maine Gov. Paul LePage recently unveiled a series of energy proposals, one of which could open up the state's renewable energy portfolio to large hydropower producers.

The state requires power companies to increase the amount of electricity derived from renewable sources by 1% a year until 2017. This has encouraged power companies to seek electricity from a variety of producers, including those involved in hydro. But to comply with the law, electricity providers can only purchase power from plants with a capacity of less than 100 MW.

LePage's proposal would eliminate that constraint, opening Maine's renewable energy market to larger hydro producers, according to the Bangor Daily News.

LePage says the move will cut electricity costs, but critics say it will hurt smaller companies.

Beth Nagusky, Maine director of environmental advocacy group Environment Northeast, told the newspaper that LePage's proposal would benefit large Canadian hydropower producers and hurt smaller, in-state renewable energy firms.

Nuclear commission studying impact of dam failure

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is evaluating potential safety implications for dam failures at facilities located upstream of domestic commercial nuclear power plants. NRC says it began examining the issue after findings at two plants prompted the completion of an initial screening assessment.

While the screening did not identify immediate safety concerns, NRC says inspections and reviews at individual plants have led owners plants to take actions regarding flooding scenarios. Likewise, NRC has urged that flooding from upstream dam failure be further evaluated as part of implementing recommendations from the agency's Japan Near-Term Task Force.

The task force's review of the incident at Japan's Fukushima nuclear facility also led to recommendations regarding the potential for flooding at operating reactors.

House passes conduit hydropower bill

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that could remove environmental compliance qualifications from some small conduit hydropower projects.

The Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act passed in March with a 265-154 vote and now awaits action in the Senate. The bill would exempt small projects with capacities less than 1.5 MW from the National Environmental Policy Act review process.

The bill's passage was applauded by the National Hydropower Association. "The National Hydropower Association was pleased to see bipartisan agreement on an important energy issue," Executive Director Linda Church Ciocci says.

FERC nominees Norris, Clark testify before panel

President Barack Obama renominated Commissioner John Norris, a Democrat, and nominated North Dakota utility regulator Anthony Clark, a Republican, to the five-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Clark, who has served on the North Dakota Public Service Commission since 2001, was named to succeed Marc Spitzer, who left FERC in December. Norris, a lawyer and state utility regulator from Iowa, was first named to the commission in 2009. His term expires this year.

The pair testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is to recommend to the full Senate whether to confirm the nominations.

Norris: FERC can seize potential of energy supplies

Norris told the committee the U.S. has tremendous potential to make energy supplies more sustainable and secure due to shale gas discoveries, an abundance of hydroelectric power, technology advances in other renewables, and a push for energy efficiency.

"At FERC, we can help seize this potential ... by continuing to build on our impressive track record of fairly and efficiently siting needed natural gas pipeline infrastructure, by providing flexible licensing procedures for new hydroelectric technologies, and taking other steps to ensure that new energy infrastructure can be brought on line at just and reasonable rates," Norris said.

Clark cites North Dakota energy expansion during his tenure

Clark highlighted the expansion of energy sources and supply during his time on the North Dakota Public Service Commission. "In my tenure, I have participated in proceedings that have authorized approximately $6 billion in energy infrastructure projects," he said. "At the same time, our state's consumers pay some of the lowest energy rates in the nation, and our environment is among the best."

During his time as president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, Clark said he worked hard to ensure that all voices were heard on energy issues. Clark also is a former North Dakota Labor Commissioner and state legislator.

Alstom Power to replace turbine runners at California's Trinity plant

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation awarded Alstom Power Inc. a $12.1 million contract for replacement of major components at the Trinity power plant on the Trinity River near Weaverville, Calif. The contract, awarded in March, includes developing and fabricating an improved turbine runner, as the existing turbines have been operating for 50 years.

Work is to be carried out during operational outages in the winters of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015. Trinity hydropower plant is part of the Central Valley Project and has a capacity of 140 MW.

BPA prepares hydro oversupply plan to compensate wind curtailment

The Bonneville Power Administration is preparing to file a plan with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that will compensate wind power generators when BPA orders them to cease generation to make room on the grid for excess federal hydropower resulting from high river flows in the Pacific Northwest.

FERC ruled in December that BPA must stop curtailing wind generators in favor of its own hydropower without compensating the wind projects for lost production tax credits, renewable energy credits and revenue from power purchase agreements. BPA had traditionally curtailed thermal power generators, who experienced a saving in fuel costs.

Wind operators, who have no fuel costs, filed a complaint with FERC in June 2011, urging it to stop BPA from using its transmission monopoly power to curtail competing generators. BPA began limiting the output of non-hydroelectric energy in May 2011.

The agency said it acted to protect salmon and steelhead from high dissolved gas concentrations in water that bypasses turbines. It said the action also maintained the reliability of the power grid and avoided shifting costs to BPA customers.

FERC ruled BPA's policy resulted in non-comparable transmission service that is unduly discriminatory and preferential. It ordered BPA to file an open access transmission tariff within 90 days that would satisfy FERC's directive to provide transmission service that is not unduly discriminatory or preferential.

Oversupply Management Protocol to compensate wind

Under the proposal, BPA would work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation to manage federal hydroelectric generation and spill water up to dissolved gas limits. BPA then would offer low-cost or free hydropower to replace the output of thermal and other plants, with the expectation that many would voluntarily reduce generation to save fuel costs.

"If electricity supply still exceeds demand, BPA would then reduce the output of remaining generation within its system, including wind energy, in order of least cost," BPA says. "BPA would compensate the affected generation for lost revenues, including renewable energy credits and production tax credits, subject to audit."

BPA expects to compensate wind producers about $12 million per year, although the total could range from nothing to more than $50 million. BPA says it expects reductions in wind generation will be unnecessary in about one of every three years.

The proposal would cover costs of curtailing wind generation this spring from BPA's transmission reserve account until a rate can be established to recover costs.

Change could pave way for pumped-storage plant

A proposed change to a Washington state law could open the door for a US$2.5 billion pumped-storage station, sources say.

The plan is being pushed by the Klickitat Public Utility District and would use surplus wind power to pump water for a 1,200-MW plant on the Columbia River. The proposal would allow PUDs along the river to sell water rights to a privately owned utility to generate electricity.

The measure passed both of Washington's legislative chambers unanimously and awaits Gov. Chris Gregoire's signature.

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