A Study of United States Hydroelectric Plant Ownership

A Study of United States Hydroelectric Plant Ownership

Prepared by: Douglas G. Hall, INL Project Manager; Kelly S. Reeves, NPS

The objective of this study was to provide a clear understanding of U.S. hydroelectric plant ownership. Ownership was reviewed by placing plant owners in six owner classes as defined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  The two principal perspectives of the review were: 1) the number of plants owned by the owners in each class and (2) the corresponding amount of total capacity associated with each owner class. These two perspectives provide significantly different views of the ownership of U.S. hydroelectric generating capability. Also of interest were the number of owners in each class and what they own both in terms of the number of plants owned by a single owner and the power class of plants owned.

Plant population and ownership patterns within each of the fifty states were reviewed both from the perspective number of plants and total capacity located in the state and the number of plants and corresponding total capacity associated with each owner class. Ownership by federal agencies was reviewed to understand what agencies own plants and the portions of the federally owned plant population and corresponding capacity owned by each agency.

The study was conducted by querying the 1998 version of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Hydroelectric Resource Assessment (HPRA) database to group plants by state and owner class, which are database fields.  Numbers of plants and the associated total capacity were then enumerated.  National totals were obtained by summing the state totals. The database was also queried to group plants by federal agency owners allowing numbers of plants and associated total capacity to be enumerated for each agency. Some information was obtained by spreadsheet analysis of the basic plant numbers and associated capacity for each state.

The principal characteristic of U.S. hydroelectric plant ownership is the private sector (private utility and non-utility owners, cooperatives, and industrial owners) owns most of the 2,388 plants (69%), but the public sector (federal and non-federal public owners) owns most (73%) of the 74,872 MW of capacity.  Private owners that are not utilities own 38% of the plants corresponding to only 4% of the total capacity, while private utilities own 31% of the plants corresponding to 24% of the total capacity. Seven federal agencies own the largest fraction of the total capacity (51%). Non-federal publicly-owned plants constitute 24% of the plant population corresponding to 22% of the total capacity.

Nearly three-quarters of the plant owners own only one plant while three federal agencies: Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Tennessee Valley Authority are each responsible for between 29 and 77 plants with these plants representing virtually all of the capacity owned by federal agencies. Four other federal agencies are responsible for 9 plants that have a total capacity of 223 MW compared to the 37,215 MW that is federally owned.  All of the owner classes have low power and small hydro classes of plants except the federal owner class., which predominately owns large hydro plants. In all cases, the great majority of the total of the capacity is derived from the large hydro plants.

The maximum number of plants in a single state are located in California (411) where the number of plants owned by the public and private sectors is approximately equal. The highest total capacity in any state is located in Washington (22,718 MW) where nearly all of the capacity is publicly owned.  Private ownership of plants is 50% or greater in 33 states. Ninety percent of the federally owned capacity is located in 13 states.

A geographic information system (GIS) application on the Internet called the Virtual Hydropower Prospector provides a means of viewing U.S. hydroelectric plants on maps and obtaining basic information about them. The application allows the user to view the plants in the context of hydrography, power and transportation infrastructure, cities and populated areas, and federal land use. In many cases, the plant name and owner information obtained from the application can be used to find additional information about the plant and its owner on the Internet.

There is a significant difference between who owns a majority of U.S. hydroelectric plants (the private sector) and who owns a majority of the U.S. hydroelectric capacity (the public sector with a majority being federally owned).  There is a disparity between the number of non utility private owners which make up about 60% of the owners and the amount of capacity they own, which is only 4% of the total U.S. hydroelectric capacity. Given the unlikelihood of the development of large hydropower projects in the present U.S. environment, hydroelectric growth is dependent upon the development of distributed generation using low power and small hydro class plants. For significant growth to occur, there will have to be a dramatic increase in the number of these plants and probably an accompanying increase in the number of plant owners. Most states already have significant numbers of these classes of plants indicating that the hydroelectric industry has the experience necessary for further expansion in a favorable economic climate. It is noted that federal ownership of approximately half of the U.S. hydroelectric capacity is unusual in the U.S. commercial power industry and is an artifact of federal power infrastructure development during the first half of the last century.

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