At the edge of the tailwater of the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in Warren County sits a hydroelectric generating station.
But the Seneca Pumped-Storage Hydro Generating Station isn’t powered by the water flowing through the dam, like the more familiar hydroelectric projects such as Hoover Dam, but rather from a 2 billion gallon reservoir perched some 800 feet above, among the trees of the Allegheny National Forest.
“Pumped-storage hydro is a different animal,” said Mark Durbin, spokesman for the facility’s operator, First Energy Generation Corp.
Durbin pointed out the station can generate 451 megawatts of electricity, but only for 10 hours a day. It then takes 14 hours to pump water back up to the perfectly round upper reservoir, about the size of a small NASCAR track, to start the process again, he said.
Symbiotics Energy LLC has proposed a similar project in Antis Township.
How it works
Durbin said First Energy Generation makes money on the difference between the cost of pumping the water during off-peak times and selling the power generated during peak times, although doing so requires careful management of the station and understanding of the sophisticated energy trading market.
The station also uses more electricity than it generates, so at a glance it might seem absurd. But for those in the business of keeping the lights on, it’s a valuable asset that helps the utility make money and meet the fluctuating demands of the power grid, noted civil engineer Rick Miller, who works for the Nebraska-based firm HDR Inc.
Pumped-storage hydropower isn’t so much a way to generate power as a way to store it, explained Miller, who has 30 years’ experience in hydroelectric power.
Balancing the power supplied to the grid isn’t as easy as turning a switch on and off. With two daily periods of peak demand – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – followed by lower demand overnight, he said, pumped-storage is a way to manage the amount of power feeding the power grid, particularly as renewable energy sources like solar and wind become more prominent.
“Too much voltage in the lines causes bulbs to burn brighter and ceiling fans to turn faster,” Miller said. “It’s a constant balancing act.”
Wind and solar power are unreliable power sources that produce according to the weather and time of day, Miller noted. In the Pacific Northwest, he said, wind turbines often turn best at night, when actual demand for electricity is at its lowest. Pumped-storage stations, he said, complement these emerging energy sources because such unneeded power during nonpeak times can be used to pump the water at a pumped-storage facility so it’s ready for when power producers must meet surges in demand during peak times.
“Pumped storage is really the most effective way to back up and store intermittent renewable energy,” said Stan Kocon, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Voith Hydro Inc. in York, a manufacturer, planner and implementer of hydroelectric systems that employs 550 people in Pennsylvania.
Kocon said interest in hydropower is very strong worldwide right now, with a resurgence in pumped storage projects due in large part to the proliferation of renewable energy power-generating facilities.
Not happy with the proposal
With the filing of a preliminary permit application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a Utah-based energy firm has shown its intentions of exploiting the construction of a pumped-storage station in Antis Township, an idea that doesn’t sit well with local environmental watchdogs.
Stan Kotala, conservation chairman of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society and executive board member of the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club, said both groups are “unconditionally opposed” to Symbiotics Energy LLC’s proposed Bellwood Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Project.
Kotala pointed out that most of the more than 221-acre project would sit on what is now State Game Land 158; would affect the state-designated Class A High Quality trout stream Tipton Run by inundating a mile of one of its tributaries, a High Quality trout stream in Mulligan Hollow; and destroy important migratory bird habitat.
“It’s absurd,” Kotala said.
He said the project’s planners haven’t contacted the Pennsylvania Game Commission about the proposal and noted such a project constitutes a large-scale industrial site with no redeeming factors that outweigh the environmental consequences.
Kotala said the planned reservoirs, 101 acres and 120 acres, would not support aquatic life because of the “wildly fluctuating water levels.”
Public lands, Kotala said, should not be used for such a project when there are other streams, particularly ones affected by acid mine runoff, that could be put to use.
Kotala said the fact the facility would offer no net gain to power production and “the only thing that would be generated is money for the owners” was another reason the conservation groups were against it.
Symbiotics did not respond to repeated attempts for comment on the project.
Proponents see the benefits
Those who work in the hydropower business said in order to maximize green energy initiatives such as solar and wind, pumped storage is a key component that, if put in the right areas, will leave a small environmental footprint.
Miller, who has served as past president of the National Hydropower Association, the industry’s leading lobbying and advocacy group headquartered in Washington, D.C., pointed out that most pumped-storage projects considered today are “closed loop” systems that have scant effects on the local environment. Even the initial filling of the reservoirs, he said, has little lasting effect on groundwater supplies.
Miller said while more pumped-storage projects are needed as more and more solar- and wind-power generating systems come online, getting financing for such ventures is extremely difficult. The expense is between $1 billion and $2 billion for each project, and government funding options are few and far between.
A long road to approval
Linda Church Ciocci, current executive director of the hydropower association, added that while any energy development has environmental impacts, FERC’s lengthy licensing process ultimately brings stakeholders in any project together to work through whether a particular site is right for a pumped-storage project.
It takes up to five years to get through the FERC process of feasibility studies and planning, and if a license is granted for a project, it can take an additional five years to build – given the multiple federal, state and local levels of regulations a developer would need to navigate.
Ciocci said this adds to the difficulty of securing financing, because return on investment is at least a decade away, something she said current lobbying efforts with Congress and FERC are working to correct.
Ciocci said NHA would like to see a more streamlined licensing process to get pumped-storage projects built in a more reasonable time frame. That, she said, would help developers get financing and better estimate construction costs and get more of these much needed energy sources up and running.
“If we’re really serious about building renewable energy, we can’t do that without pumped storage,” Ciocci said.