Quick draw for hydrokinetic priority

Last year, I noted the "gold rush" aspect of hydrokinetic energy development in the US, as developers raced to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to file claims on promising sites. Some of the most obvious areas for hydrokinetic development, such as the Mississippi River system, generated hundreds of applications for preliminary permits which would grant exclusive rights to study the site and prepare a first-priority license application within three years.

In some cases, multiple developers applied for a preliminary permit for the same site. Whoever files a valid application first is given first priority; developers filing an application for the same site later face an uphill battle as competing applicants.

In the heat of the gold rush, sometimes multiple applications come in with identical filing times. How does FERC resolve these disputes? A quick draw?

A random drawing, as it turns out. As long as the Commission believes that none of the applicants’ plans is better adapted than the others to develop, conserve, and utilize in the public interest the water resources of the region at issue, FERC uses a random drawing to resolve disputes over who gets to count as having been there first.

The Commission has used random drawings to assign priority to competing applications with identical filing times since at least 2009, when it granted first priority for a site to the city of Angoon, Alaska, defeating the cities of Petersburg and Wrangell. Since then, it has issued notices announcing filing priority for preliminary permit application at least 33 more times, most recently resolving ten disputes by random drawing this past Wednesday.

The need for such a mechanism highlights the booming interest in many high-value sites for generating innovative hydroelectricity without building new dams. The hydrokinetic quick draw may be a sign that the most promising sites have attracted competitive interest, even if the means of picking a temporary winner (typically a term of three years) is ultimately random.