Oregon is well endowed with hydropower resources, which provide about half of the state’s electricity. Most of this energy comes from large dams on the Columbia and Willamette rivers. Large-scale hydropower has a long and controversial history in the Pacific Northwest. It provides abundant inexpensive electricity, but major dams have damaged habitat and blocked fish from migrating upstream.

Since 2007, Energy Trust of Oregon has promoted a different kind of hydropower: small, environmentally friendly projects. These projects install generating equipment in places where water is already dammed or diverted, such as agricultural irrigation pipelines. Adding hydropower where water is already in use for another purpose typically does not cause additional environmental impacts. And it provides small-scale local power sources that keep revenues in local communities.

Locations for new, run-of river hydropower projects in Oregon are limited by the state’s 1987 Instream Water Right Act, which declared that instream uses of water (such as recreation and maintenance of fish habitat) were beneficial uses and allowed natural resource agencies to apply for those rights. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council has identified other locations as Protected Areas off limits to hydro development. The combination of the law and regulation “essentially took natural streams off the table,” says Jed Jorgensen, a renewable energy program manager at Energy Trust of Oregon. “Hydropower work now is mostly limited to existing non-powered dams; streams where there are no fish issues, which is a very small subset; and places where water already is in use for another purpose, such as municipal supply pipes and irrigation canals.”

After studying these options, Energy Trust focused on conduit projects, which install generating equipment inside an existing conduit, such as an irrigation ditch or municipal water line. Hydropower projects, even small ones, must go through complex state and federal permitting processes that can be daunting for new developers, so Energy Trust published permitting guides. It also provided technical and financial support to developers for project research and permitting, and published a separate guide to the utility interconnection process.

Energy Trust has completed 13 small hydropower projects since 2007, ranging in size from 4 kilowatts to 5 megawatts. These projects are generating approximately 27 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Now the organization is scaling up its work with irrigation districts, the majority of which still move water through leaky open ditches. Irrigation modernization projects replace open canals with pressurized pipe, often saving energy as well as water and allowing for hydropower in many cases. In the arid West where water is very valuable, the water savings from the piping process is an important piece of financing the cost of the pipe. “Irrigation districts have hundreds of miles of canals that move tremendous volumes of water. Piping is very expensive, and most districts don’t have the operating budget to go out and buy it all by themselves,” says Jorgensen. Energy Trust is developing project assessment tools and hopes to have assessed up to a dozen potential sites by the end of 2016.

Based on its experience, Energy Trust provided comments to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on simplifying and streamlining permitting for conduit hydropower projects. Not long after that, the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act, enacted by Congress in 2013, simplified the permitting process for conduit hydropower projects.

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This blog post was written by Jenny Weeks and Warren Leon, and was originally published in the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA)’s 2015 report “Clean Energy Champions: The Importance of State Policies and Programs.” This report provides the first-ever comprehensive look at the ways states are advancing clean energy and suggests how to further encourage clean energy growth.

This blog post was also published on Renewable Energy World.