Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Green light — HEA hydro projects must be eco-friendly for low-impact certification

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories examining possible Homer Electric Association hydroelectric projects near Moose Pass. Next week’s story will focus on previous plans for hydro in the area.

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

If applying to have a hydroelectric project reviewed by the Low-Impact Hydropower Institute is worthy of the Eager Beaver Award, than receiving low-impact certification is akin to a gold star of achievement. Or, more appropriately, a green one.

The nonprofit organization, based in Maine, evaluates the environmental effects of hydro projects across the country and designates the ones that meet its criteria as “low impact.”

Low-impact certification is not required by the state of Alaska, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or any of the other players that have a hand in approving hydro permits. The application costs thousands of dollars and presents extra hoops to jump through in an already paperwork-laden process. Even so, Homer Electric Association plans to seek low-impact certification for four hydro projects it hopes to build in the Crescent Lake area near Moose Pass.

“What we saw at the Low-Impact Hydropower Institute was a third-party, credible organization that can take a look at the projects and give its stamp of approval, and we think that’s a real worthwhile thing to pursue,” said Joe Gallagher, HEA spokesman.

Fred Ayer, executive director of the institute, said the low-impact designation for hydro projects is similar to food or other products being certified as organic. It’s a waving of the magic, environmentally friendly wand that bestows “green” status in a time when that shade is becoming more and more popular.

“Things are really popping. There’s sort of a renewed interest everywhere with anything that says ‘green.’ It seems to be full of excitement,” Ayer said.

Oftentimes, the owners of hydro projects that get low-impact certification use the designation for marketing and parlay it into charging higher rates for power from a “green” facility, Ayer said.

That’s not what HEA is after, Gallagher said.

“We’re not pursuing the certification in order to seek additional rates or anything like that,” he said.

The benefit for HEA in pursuing hydropower and wind energy — which it also is looking into — is that renewable energy sources lessen the co-op’s dependency on burning natural gas to generate electricity. Right now, through HEA’s contract with Chugach Electric Association, about 90 percent of HEA’s power comes from natural gas, with 10 to 12 percent coming from the Bradley Lake hydropower dam in Kachemak Bay. As natural gas prices climb, so do HEA’s rates — 8 cents per kilowatt-hour since 2008. HEA hopes the four proposed hydropower projects, each with an estimated output of 4 to 6 megawatts, will represent about 20 percent of HEA’s power and help stabilize rates, Gallagher said.

The low-impact designation isn’t necessary in getting the hydro projects approved and built. Kenai Hydro LLC — a joint venture of HEA and Wind Energy Alaska, which was formed by renewable energy company enXco — already has three-year preliminary permits from FERC to study the projects. As long as FERC and regulatory agencies sign off on the final permits the projects can be built, even if Kenai Hydro applies for low-impact certification and is denied. But if the projects do get the low-impact designation, it would be a stamp of approval from an independent source that HEA is trying to do right by the environment.

That could prove valuable in winning public support for the projects, especially from those in the Cooper Landing area who are leery of hydro projects, with Chugach Electric Association’s Cooper Creek hydro facility in their backyard. Old-timers remember fishing for salmon and pulling 20-plus-inch trout out of Cooper Creek before the dam was built in the 1960s. Nowadays, there are no fish to be found.

That’s exactly the sort of negative environmental effects the Low-Impact Hydropower Institute is trying to eradicate. Having a dam that blocks water flow and fish passage is a direct, do-not-pass-go denial of an application, Ayer said.

But siphon projects have been certified, Ayer said, where water is diverted through a pipe — called a penstock — to power turbines before being returned to the water system. Alaska Power and Telephone’s Goat Lake hydroelectric facility near Skagway is a siphon and penstock operation, and got low-impact certification in March 2007. HEA’s preliminary plans call for this type of facility.

There is a major difference between Goat Lake and the four sites being considered by Kenai Hydro — Ptarmigan Creek, Falls Creek, Crescent Lake and Grant Lake. Goat Lake doesn’t support fish and there’s no evidence of fish usage of the lake’s drainage stream within several miles of the facility, since fish migration is blocked by the 2,100-foot Pitchfork Falls downstream of the power plant.

The sites being considered by Kenai Hydro do show evidence of anadromous — migratory — fish usage, especially where they empty into the Trail Lakes system down by the Seward Highway.

“That’s the big driver — is this a big system? Does this have any fish that need to go up to complete their lifestyle?” Ayer said. “… In general terms, if there are fish in the project area it’s something people need to explain, ‘Yes there are fish and here are the issues.’”

The existence of fish in a water system doesn’t mean a low-impact hydro project can’t be built there; it just takes extra research, planning and consideration to mitigate any negative effects the hydro project might have.

The only other hydro facility in Alaska to get low-impact certification is the Bear Lake hydroelectric project on Prince of Wales Island near Klawock. It’s another siphon and penstock facility operated by Alaska Power and Telephone. The lake has a rainbow trout population, stocked there in the 1950s by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and a habitat study in 2002 found that Dolly Varden and chum, pink and silver salmon use the creek downstream of the facility. The facility is required to adhere to lake drawdown limits and to maintain certain water levels in the stream system. After five years of monitoring, no impacts to the fish were observed, according to the institute.

“It’s not that you can’t do some of those things, but they need to be done in a way that’s least destructive, and what amazes me is how well those things can be done — and how horribly I’ve seen them done,” Ayer said.

The certification process begins by a hydro developer contacting the institute and indicating their intent to apply for certification. The developer fills out a questionnaire and Ayer counsels them on whether or not they should apply. If it’s obvious a project won’t be certified, Ayes said he’d rather the developer didn’t waste time and money on the process.

The application fee varies by the size and power output of the project, but Ayer said HEA would probably be looking at a $2,500 fee, plus an annual fee that’s 15 percent of the initial application cost. In five years projects come up for recertification, with a cost of 20 percent of the initial application fee.

There’s a 60-day public comment period, where stakeholders and interested parties can voice their concerns, support or opposition to the project getting low-impact status. To spread the word about the comment period, the institute uses the same contact list FERC does in its licensing process.

“More and more places are engaging stakeholders to become involved in the whole process,” Ayer said. “… It seems to me the earlier you find out you have an issue, the better chance you have to solve it or work around it. If the project is in your area and you have any concerns, stay involved.”

The institute reviews the specifics of hydro projects to determine their low-impact status. It’s the same documentation FERC considers for licensing, but the institute can have higher standards for its low-impact designation than FERC does for licensing, Ayer said. The institute doesn’t do site visits — it’s not a big enough organization for that yet, Ayer said.

The criteria used in evaluating hydro projects are: river flows, water quality, fish passage and protection, watershed protection, threatened and endangered species protection, cultural resource protection, recreation, and facilities recommended for removal. The last one won’t apply to Kenai Hydro, since it will apply with new projects, not existing facilities seeking recertification.

After the comment period, the institute gives a report to its governing board, which meets by conference call to decide whether to grant low-impact statutes. The process averages four to six months, Ayer said, which is light speed compared to how long the licensing process can take when dealing with Washington, D.C.

Once approved, companies must submit an affidavit annually that says the hydro project hasn’t changed in any way that creates new impacts or would have affected the outcome of the original application. In five years the project goes through a streamlined version of the application process for recertification.

“Assuming nothing has changed, it’s reconfirmed that these guys have been good actors and they’re doing their thing the way they’re supposed to be,” Ayer said.

The institute has certified 37 hydro projects across the country since 2001, and recertified 10. It could be more, except the program is new enough that not many have come up for recertification yet, Ayer said. Most certified facilities are in the West — Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah, with others in Colorado, New York, Kansas, Vermont and elsewhere.

“It’s a fair and even standard, is what we like to say,” Ayer said. “What we’re doing is the same thing whether you’ve got a project in New Mexico or Maine or Alaska, the criteria for requirements is the same.”

That being said, there are some regional differences in the certification process because licensing requirements can vary by state. The federal Clean Water Act gives states input into projects that involve discharge or could impact water quality and require federal permits or licenses by allowing states to essentially sign off on the projects by issuing Section 401 certification. Certification stipulates that a project won’t violate state water quality standards. Some states review proposed projects and issue or deny Section 401 certification, and some — like Alaska —waive the requirement for 401 certification, Ayer said.

William Ashton, section manager for stormwater and wetlands with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said ADEC does issue 401 certification for some projects, like dredging and filling wetlands, but waives the requirement for hydro projects.

“What that means for hydroelectric projects is we just don’t review the impact of them on water quality,” Ashton said.

That’s been the policy since he’s been in his position, since 2007, and he said it’s probably a result of limited staffing.

FERC generally accepts a waiver of 401 certification just like it would another state’s approval of certification.

“It’s basically optional to the states, and so that’s why, in our case, we just do the waiver. Just for the hydro. For other kinds of projects, we do look at that,” Ashton said.

That practice presents a problem for the Low-Impact Hydropower Institute, because 401 certification is one of the things it looks for in its evaluation process.
Projects that have a waiver of 401 certification, rather than the certification itself, have a harder time proving to the institute they won’t negatively impact water quality. It can still be done, but it generally takes a state acknowledging in some way that the project isn’t expected to hurt water quality.

“What that means is, in some cases those projects will be a little more challenging for us to put through our filter because we still need to understand and know that the project is not negatively impacting the water quality,” Ayer said. “Some of the projects that have great difficulty are from states without certification.”

But Alaska does have some things going for it when it comes to hydro, he said. For one thing, the water coming out of glacial-fed mountain lakes and streams already starts out clean, he said. And many mountain water systems are so high up with such steep elevation drops along the way that they don’t support migratory fish populations to begin with. Ayer said he’s been happy with the projects he’s seen from Alaska.

“The folks up there seem to have a pretty decent working relationship with the agencies. The projects seem to be well thought out and well done. That’s what we’ve seen so far,” he said.

“From my experience, most developers are trying to do the right thing. They’re going to be advised by state and federal regulatory agencies and their own consultants of what the issues are, and in most cases that’s what they’re going to do. They’re going to do the right thing.”

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