GOLDENDALE – When Randy Knowles looks down from the windmill-dotted ridge to the Columbia River 2,000 feet below, he sees opportunity.
He’s standing at the site of a proposed reservoirthat could reshape the Northwest’s electrical grid to cope with the growing supply of renewable, but highly variable, wind power.
Knowles, a commissioner with the Klickitat Public Utility District, wants to see this ridge transformed into a giant rechargeable battery – using water and gravity to story energy.
Known as a pumped storage system, the facility would pump water uphill into reservoirs when there’s electricity to spare and then release it through turbines to a lower reservoir to generate electricity when it’s needed.
After studying the idea for nearly a decade, the Klickitat PUD hasbegun applying for a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to pursue the estimated $2.5 billion project.
The ambitious plan faces a long road to operation with hurdles including complex permitting, a hunt for investors and working around a landfill that needs to be cleaned up. But Knowles is optimistic the project is proposed in the right place at the right time and that it could be major economic development for the quiet county.
“The physical characteristics of the site are just so compelling,” Knowles said on a recent tour of the proposed project, which would be built near the John Day Dam at the site of an aluminium smelter that closed in 2003 on a ridge high above the river.
“The site isn’t a secret, it’s frankly a matter of timing.”
By timing, he means the 3,500 megawatts worth of wind turbines that have sprung up around the region in the past decade and the push for utilities to increase renewable energy sources without also increasing prices.
Pumped storage technology isn’t new; there are dozens of facilities in other parts of the country. But Knowles said the Goldendale site is ideal for several reasons. First, the steep drop between the two upper and one lower reservoir means more gravity pressure on the water traveling down to the turbines, which translates to higher power production. Second, it’s close to major transmission lines. Third, the PUD already has sufficient water rights and water intake structures from the former aluminium smelter.
Once operational, the proposed 1,200-megawatt facility could produce as much power as Richland’s Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear power plant that producesabout 10 percent of the state’s power demand at any given time.
But the comparison to a power plant isn’t quiteaccurate, said Brian Skeahan, the former manager of the PUD who is leading this project.
For example, the project could only produce power at full capacity for about 10 hours until the upper reservoirs become empty.
Also, pumped storage plants result in a net loss of electricity because they require more energy to pump water uphill than they generate when it comes back down. In general, they are about 80 percent efficient, Skeahan said.
But even after losing that 20 percent, the project still provides an economic advantage for utilities, Skeahan said.
That’s because the region’s electric grid has to be in constant balance.Natural gas power plants can adjust production to match demand, but the region’s massive wind and hydropower systems are less flexible. If the wind is blowing and the rivers are racing at night when homes are dark and factories are not operating, the utilities end up selling the extra power for next to nothing. If they could keep that electricity until the next day, when demand and prices rise, it becomes much more valuable.
As wind capacity grows and hydropower loses some of its operating flexibility to ensure good river conditions for migrating fish, storage capacity is becoming more valuable, Skeahan said.
Klickitat PUD, with just 11,000 customers using about 45 megawatts of power, doesn’t need a facility this size, Knowles said. It just happens to have the perfect site to build one.
The project consists of three reservoirs, one lower and two upper, divided to fit between existing wind turbines. Each would be about 165 feet deep, contained by gravel banks and lined with concrete, with a footprint of 100 acres for the lower pond and 46 and 67 acres for the upper ponds.
The reservoirs would be connected by two large pipes that could carry water up or down, powered by reversible pumps that would also serve as turbine generators.
Klickitat PUD hopes its larger cousins, like Portland-based PacifiCorp or California’s Pacific Gas and Electric, would be willing to invest in the project for a share ofits benefits, namely the ability to temporarily store power and sell at times when the demand and price are high.
No investors have yet signed on.
Knowles said they want to focus on the license first, which should take the next two years. Once backers are found, Klickitat PUD hopes construction could start by 2020. If all goes according to plan, it could be operational in a decade, creating about 150 jobs.
The study and permit effort will likely cost about $1.5 million, Skeahan said. The PUD is in active discussions with potential investors interested in getting the project off the ground, because it doesn’t want ratepayers to cover the research, he said. No formal agreements have yet been made.
Although there are 39 pumped storage plants in the country, a new facility hasn’t been built in 20 years, said Nate Sandvig, a hydropower engineer with MWH Global, which is designing the project.
Most of the existing facilities were built near nuclear power plants, which produce a constant supply and need to store electricity from day to night, he said.
Many of those plants were also built in rivers, adding a reverse feature to hydroelectric dams to pump water back upstream for later release.
This project would be a closed system with no return flow to the river, which reduces some of the environmental concerns commonly associated with such projects, said Charlie McKinney, water quality program manager for the state Department of Ecology.
McKinney’s office will also have to issue permits for the project to ensure that it complies with the federal Clean Water Act.
The entire system would fill up once with 13,000 acre-feet of water over about six months – that’s enough water to cover 20 square miles to 1 foot deep. Then, it would need just about 750 acre-feet more each year to make up for water lost to evaporation.
Before the Ecology Department can approve permits for the project, it needs to approve a cleanup plan for the former smelter site, including a landfill that contains some dangerous waste, said Tom Tebb, director of the Ecology Department’s central region office.
The site is still being studied, but Tebb said contaminants of concern include hydrocarbons from coal tar, PCBs from old electrical equipment, and cyanide and fluoride from the smelting waste.
The agency is working with the site’s current owners – NCS Smelter LLC and Lockheed Martin Corp. – to develop and carry out a cleanup plan that will make it safe for redevelopment, Tebb said. No cost or time estimates are available.
Skeahan said that the PUD was interested in working with the current owners to expedite the cleanup process as part of talks about purchasing the 7,000-acre property, but nothing has been decided.
Tebb said that he’s concerned that the cleanup might take longer than the PUD is expecting, but he supports the project.
“I like the idea of cleaning up (this site) quickly with this economic incentive, andit is avaluable project to the Northwest’s energy portfolio,” Tebb said. “It’s ideally suited and it had a lot of things going for it, other than there’s a solid waste landfill to clean up first.”
Cleanup concerns aside, Knowles said this pumped storage is several steps ahead of other such projects under discussion around the West, thanks to existing water rights and the already-developed sites with road access, rather than pristine habitat.
“It’s constructible,” he said. “All we really need to do is find someone that has $2.5 billion and wants to do it.”
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