Utah pumped storage project seeks license

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Electricity can be tricky to store once it is generated.  Batteries, flywheels, and other energy storage technologies can provide some storage capacity, but pumped storage -- using electricity to pump water uphill during times of low power pricing, and letting it fall back down to generate electricity when needed -- is the most-used bulk electricity storage medium in the US.  As of 2010, the United States was home to 21.5 gigawatts of pumped storage generating capacity.  Pumped storage can be used both to balance supply and demand on the electric grid and to arbitrage fuel and electricity costs. 

While some question whether electricity produced through pumped storage should qualify as renewable energy, pumped storage in the US is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as hydropower.  Most pumped storage projects will ultimately need a FERC license, but obtaining a preliminary permit is a typical first step in the approval process.  A preliminary permit gives a developer the right to investigate the feasibility of a project, typically for a three-year term, and convey exclusive first priority to file for a full license during that window.

This month, a proposed pumped storage in the Utah desert applied for a preliminary permit.  Utah Independent Power, Inc. filed its application to FERC for a preliminary permit for the Long Canyon Pumped Storage Project (18-page PDF).  Utah Independent Power proposes to build two dams to store water drawn from the Colorado River near Moab, Utah.  These dams would create an upper reservoir on the high plateau above Long Canyon and a lower reservoir at the end of Long Canyon.  The developer suggests that the power required for pumping would be supplied to the proposed project through the transmission grid using existing off peak power, while power would be produced by the project during peak periods and sold through the Western Electricity Coordinating Council grid at competitive peak rates.

The principals behind Utah Independent Power are no strangers to investigating pumped storage projects, having been involved in other proposals in the desert Southwest in recent decades.  Indeed, in 2008, Utah Independent Power applied for and obtained a preliminary permit for the Long Canyon Pumped Storage project.  (Here is Utah Independent Power's 2008 application, and the Commission's 2008 order issuing preliminary permit.)  Utah Independent Power surrendered that preliminary permit in 2011, along with another preliminary permit for the nearby Bull Canyon Pumped Storage project.  Its 2012 Long Canyon application bears significant similarities to its earlier proposal, with some differences including a slightly lower upper dam.

Utah Independent Power's proposal is likely to trigger significant interest.  On the one hand, being able to use existing natural resources -- in this case, Colorado River water and canyon topography -- to store electricity may be an attractive proposition.  On the other hand, Colorado River water is already scarce and at the center of water right fights.  Moreover, the Long Canyon project would lie close to scenic and protected lands, such as Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park.  An existing jeep road runs along Long Canyon, and the area receives both motorized and non-motorized recreation.  In 2008, the State of Utah filed comments questioning the applicant's rights to the necessary water and land, as well as the impacts to the viewshed and natural landscape from the dams, transmission lines, and other project facilities.

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