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Hydropower: Time for a Small Makeover

23 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2013 Last revised: 25 Jun 2014

Gina Warren

University of Houston Law Center

Date Written: August 18, 2013


Hydropower currently generates approximately eight percent of the electricity in the United States. It is the most abundant, most efficient and least expensive source of renewable electricity generation on earth. Yet, when most people think of hydropower they think of huge dams, dead fish and a destroyed environment. Unfortunately, this perception has on too many occasions been a reality. Hydropower needs a new PR department. It is time for a “small” makeover.

To embrace the full potential of sustainable hydropower, investors and regulatory agencies must look to develop small, localized facilities on existing infrastructure. Unlike large conventional hydropower, small and low flow hydropower facilities require less water flow and can be placed in conduits, canals, locks, and other areas that are less affected by climate change decreases in river levels. The environmental impact of small hydropower is generally minimal. It diverts less water, and does not require creation of dams and reservoirs. Furthermore, small hydropower can be developed near populated areas (especially if located on existing infrastructure), which makes it a valuable distributed generation energy source. Utilization of distributed generation has several advantages over centralized generation. Distributed generation is generally cost-efficient and environmentally-friendly because it takes up very little space and requires little to no construction of transmission and distribution systems. It is also less susceptible to blackout and damage as a result of storms, which are becoming more frequent and severe due to a changing climate.

In addition to guidance on locating the small facilities, regulatory agencies should continue to take steps to allow a more streamlined licensing scheme for small hydropower. The current licensing scheme requires – with few exceptions – that small projects undergo the same complex licensing process as large projects such as construct of another Hoover Dam. The process is expensive – costing several times that of the technology itself. The process is time-consuming – often taking up to five years to complete. It requires multiple levels of consultation – often with dozens of parties. And, all of this must occur prior to issuance of a license to operate. Recently, the federal government and some states have taken steps to make the process more efficient; however, more can and should be done.

Keywords: hydro, hydropower, energy law, policy, licensing, regulatory, sustainable, distributed generation

Suggested Citation

Warren, Gina, Hydropower: Time for a Small Makeover (August 18, 2013). 24 Ind. Int'l & Comp. L. Rev. 249 (2014). Available at SSRN:

Gina Warren (Contact Author)

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

Houston, TX 77003
United States


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