A Little Action at the Pump Storage Project

By John McFerrin

Although the details about the project are not yet available, there have been some developments in the proposed pump storage project near Bismark in Grant County.  The developers have appeared before the Grant County Commission and, after a brief discussion, received its endorsement.

Even if the endorsement of the Grant County Commission has little significance, it did make the project more visible.  People are starting to talk.  Questions are just now being asked in the community: What are likely impacts to Greenland Gap? Falls Gap? The Falls community? What impacts from drilling for the long underground penstocks? 

While the endorsement of the Grant County Commission has some significance, it is not the body which will decide whether the project is ultimately built.  That would be up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  

On February 3, 2020, the Federal Energy Commission issued a preliminary permit for the facility.  While a preliminary permit is a step on the road to actual construction, it is a baby step compared to everything that is yet to come.  It does not allow any earth disturbance.  It just allows the applicant to conduct feasibility studies and gather information that would be necessary to complete an application for the permit that would actually be necessary to build the project. The preliminary permit points out that, as a matter of law, it does not authorize Freedomworks, LC, to enter into or conduct any tests on any land it does not own without permission.

This proposed project, called the Ulysses Pumped Storage Hydropower Project location would involve constructing two reservoirs, one on Mill Run, a tributary of Stony River, and another on the North Fork of Patterson Creek.

A pump storage project is designed as a way to, in effect, store electricity.  It consists of two reservoirs, an upper reservoir and a lower reservoir.  They are connected by huge underground tubes called penstocks.  At times when an electricity generating facility–be it a coal fired power plant, a wind farm, an array of solar panels, or anything else—is producing more electricity than there is demand for, it uses the excess electricity to pump water to the upper reservoir.  When there is more demand for electricity, the water flows by gravity, through turbines, from the upper to the lower reservoir and generates electricity. 

Such a system has the potential to be useful in storing electricity from solar and wind facilities when they produce electricity at times other than when there is a demand for it.  To date, its primary use has been to store electricity from conventional power sources such as coal or nuclear power.  

The developer of the project, FreedomWorks, LLC, has not firmly indicated the source of the electricity is proposes to store.  Its application notes the presence of Dominion Power Resources and First Energy powerlines in the area.  It does not mention the coal fueled power plant at Mt. Storm although its proximity makes it a likely candidate as the source of the electricity.  The application does mention the Ned Power Wind Farm and the Greenland Gap Wind Farm although it is far from making a commitment to these facilities.  It only says that it intends to “evaluate” using transmission lines from those facilities. 

In describing the public benefits of the project, the application says this:

The benefits of the proposed Ulysses Pump Storage Project are directly in keeping with the State of West Virginia’s Energy Plan to become the leader in transitioning the United States to a new energy future by supporting new renewable energy projects that create jobs and maximize the States natural resources.

            It is impossible to know whether this is a genuine commitment to renewable energy or just the kind of thing that one says these days when hoping to have a project approved.  If this is an accurate representation of West Virginia’s Energy Plan, someone should tell the Legislature.  It does not appear to know about this Plan.

            Even at this early stage this project is the subject of some controversy.  The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition both filed comments on the preliminary application.  While neither organization opposed the project absolutely, both pointed out that the project would not be free of environmental consequences.  The Rivers Coalition was particularly strong in pointing out the vague and unspecific nature of the project’s commitment to renewable energy.  In its view, if the project only facilitated more coal burning its environmental value is limited.

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources also made comments.  It said that the project likely would eliminate the trout fishery in the two affected streams, could impact numerous rare species, and would be constructed in an area that contains known caves.

The United States Department of the Interior also weighed in.  The tone of its comments could best be described as cautiously pessimistic.  It did not definitively say that the adverse effects would occur.  It just kept saying that the project would affect waterways and had the “potential” to harm several endangered species, nesting birds, Bald Eagles, etc.  It suggests studies.

In issuing the preliminary permit the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission did not address any of these issues.  Instead, it relied upon its application process for the full permit to construct and operate the project.  It is confident that the process requires that adequate studies be done and information provided to address these issues.