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Environmental Decision Support Toolkit

Topic: Clean Energy


Most privately owned hydropower facilities must secure or renew a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This process can take more than 7 years to complete, and the environmental impact study negotiation phase is one of the lengthiest parts of the process. This negotiation typically involves multiple stakeholders with different perspectives regarding the project’s possible environmental impacts and potential mitigation efforts.

To help focus discussions among stakeholders and streamline the licensing process, the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) researchers have developed an environmental decision toolkit with a river function indicator (RFI) questionnaire based on a database of more than 3,000 environmental metrics and common terminology. Results from the questionnaire can be used as a resource during the study plan development phase of the FERC licensing process.



The project team worked with stakeholder advisory boards representing the interests of hydropower developers, federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations with environmental interests, and the scientific research community.

In two phases, ORNL researchers first developed the comprehensive database of environmental metrics from which to scientifically assess the ecological effects of hydropower development. The metrics were gleaned from a wide variety of source documents and compiled into six categories: biota and biodiversity; water quality; geomorphology; connectivity and fragmentation; water quantity; and landscape and land cover. Using the emergent properties of this database, the researchers developed a set of 52 RFIs and began to develop a set of questions to use in determining which RFIs might be affected by a proposed hydropower project. They conducted case studies of 12 FERC-licensed hydropower projects to determine which environmental studies were requested vs. completed and how these environmental studies corresponded to the 52 RFIs.

During the second phase, the project team worked with the stakeholder advisory boards to refine the questions and develop an online interactive RFI questionnaire; a user guide explaining the intent, uses, and technical instructions; and a short training video. The team also conducted pilot tests of the RFI questionnaire with five outside users associated with three recently licensed hydropower projects and determined that the tool is useful and usable. Through a memorandum of understanding with DOE and Norway’s Royal Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, ORNL and DOE staff also held a series of five discussions with researchers from Norwegian research organizations SINTEF and NINA to (1) present recently developed environmental decision tools; (2) reach a consensus regarding the motivation for creating these tools and define what constitutes an effective decision support tool for hydropower stakeholders; and (3) identify key barriers to using environmental decision tools during hydropower development. The resulting white paper summarizes the results of the group’s discussions and provides suggestions for future research to improve the effectiveness and uptake of environmental decision tools.

Impact/Intended Impact

The intent of this research was to create a shared catalog of terminology, methodology, and metrics that can enable stakeholders to consistently, coherently, and comprehensively define, assess, and communicate their concepts of important environmental attributes and potential environmental impacts. Thus, the comprehensive database of environmental metrics and decision support tools can enable more fruitful conversations during the FERC licensing process.

Environmental Metrics for Hydropower Database

River Function Indicator Questionnaire

White paper: Environmental Decision Tools for Hydropower