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Public comment period open for largest proposed energy storage project in Washington

 Erik Steimle, vice president of Rye Development, stands near where his company would like to build an upper reservoir for a pumped storage project near Goldendale, Washington.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
Erik Steimle, vice president of Rye Development, stands near where his company would like to build an upper reservoir for a pumped storage project near Goldendale, Washington.

More than 2,400 feet above the Columbia River, high atop Goodnoe Hills in south central Washington, a reservoir could one day cover 61-acres of private land. Right now, cows graze underneath wind turbines, which gently swoosh overhead.

Down below, nearly at river level, a second 63-acre reservoir could one day stretch across a small section of a former aluminum smelter site. Developers plan to clean up the area, which is filled with contaminated material the smelter dumped.

These two reservoirs would be connected by concrete or steel-lined tunnels that would be burrowed into the sloped hillside, said Erik Steimle, vice president of Rye Development, which is developing the energy storage project.

This setup, known as a pumped storage project, will be key to implementing the Pacific Northwest’s renewable energy goals, Steimle said. These energy storage projects act as batteries, saving excess power for times when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

Pumped storage projects aren’t a new technology. However, a new project like this hasn’t been built in the United States in the last 30 years, Steimle said, although developers in Europe and Asia have built pumped storage projects more recently.

If built, the Goldendale Energy Storage Project would be the largest pumped storage project in the Pacific Northwest, providing up to 1,200 megawatts on-demand, the equivalent of 12-hours of electricity for residents in a city the size of Seattle, Steimle said.

In addition, the Goldendale project would make up one-fifth of the region’s need for energy storage, he said.

To work, the project would store energy when there is excess power on the grid. The pumped storage project would act like a battery, using the natural geography of the cliffs.

First, the project would pump water from the lower reservoir into the higher reservoir when there is excess power on the grid, such as when there’s a lot of spring snowmelt flowing through dams and a lot of wind spinning turbine blades.

A view from the edge of the cliff where the Goldendale Energy Storage Project could be built. An underground tunnel would carry water from a upper reservoir to a reservoir down below.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
A view from the edge of the cliff where the Goldendale Energy Storage Project could be built. An underground tunnel would carry water from a upper reservoir to a reservoir down below.

Once water is pumped to the upper reservoir, the water would sit in there until more power is needed, such as when people come home from work. At that time, there’s a spike in the demand, with people cooking dinner and turning on the air conditioning.

That’s when the water in the upper reservoir could be released downhill, traveling through a powerhouse and turbines, into the lower reservoir.

To get the facility to full generation would take less than four minutes, Steimle said.

On a recent tour of the site, the wind spun turbine blades near where the energy storage project would be built, but Steimle said no power was generated because recent rains caused the hydropower system to run at full capacity. A pumped storage project would help take advantage of all the energy left on the table now, he said.

“This is more like a day that we would typically see in April,” Stiemle said at the project tour June 22. “When the hydro facilities on the Columbia are operating at a full rate, it can be difficult for the wind to fully deliver its generation into the system.”

Moreover, Steimle said, the pumped storage project has a 100-year lifespan, which could help balance the grid long-term.

“This is a low cost way of aggregating all this wind and solar for generations,” Steimle said.

Long-term and shorter impacts of the pumped storage project are currently under review.

A new draft environmental impact statement from the Washington Department of Ecology is out now. The draft statement examines potential environmental effects of the project and its construction. The public can comment on the draft EIS through Aug. 9. The final online Zoom session about the draft EIS will be at 10 a.m. June 30. The public also can submit comments online.

Around 60 people attended a public hearing June 28 in Goldendale, said Ryan Miller, communications manager with the Washington Department of Ecology. At that meeting, officials heard around 25 oral public comments, which all supported the project.

The final environmental impact statement, which is expected later this year, will guide future permits for the pumped storage project. The project will need federal, state and Klickitat County permits.

In the draft statement, the Department of Ecology noted significant impacts to wildlife and tribal cultural resources.

The department proposed measures to lessen potential problems for wildlife, including birds of conservation concern, such as the rufous hummingbird and sage thrasher. In addition, other species could face impacts from the project, including golden and bald eagles; ferruginous hawks, which are endangered in Washington; little brown bats, which are a priority species in Washington; and Western gray squirrels, which are threatened in Washington.

The tribal cultural damage also would be significant and unavoidable, according to the draft statement.

In anearlier story from Northwest News Network, tribal members called the cultural losses irreversible and an environmental injustice.

The Goodnoe Hills, known as Put-a-lish, is where the Ka-milt-pah people survived the Ice Age Floods nearly 15,000 years ago, said Elaine Harvey, a Ka-milt-pah member, known in English as the Rock Creek Band of the Yakama Nation.

“This whole area is really sacred from the bottom all the way to the top,” Harvey said.

Moreover, the project would be built on top of important traditional gathering sites for berries, roots and medicinal plants, Harvey said.

In addition to the Yakama Nation, other tribes have raised concerns about the project, including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation; the Confederated Bands of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon; and the Nez Perce Tribe.

According to the draft environmental impact statement, “Restrictions to access and removal of areas used for cultural practices will indirectly affect entire tribal communities and multiple generations.”

The Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation estimates 15 archeological sites could be disturbed during construction, according to the draft statement.

“The study area was intensively used in the past, and this use is reflected by a dense concentration of archaeological sites,” according to the draft statement.

The culturally sacred area is something Rye Development has taken into consideration, Steimle said.

“We worked with the tribes to hire their own staff to do cultural resource survey work, ethnographic survey work in our project area,” he said. “It's important to understand that tribal nations need to be heard. They're an important part of the process.”

According to the draft statement, Rye Development has proposed some mitigation measures, but the tribes have said the mitigation measures aren't sufficient. Mitigation measures could include restoring native plant communities, protecting aquatic species and water quality, and reducing harm to golden eagles.

Consultation between the tribal governments and the federal government is ongoing, Steimle said.

“We’re more listeners in that process,” he said.

Solutions aren’t so easy as moving the project to another location in the Columbia Gorge, Steimle said. Numerous studies have found this site makes the perfect place for a pumped storage project. It just hasn’t been feasible until now, he said.

“From an engineering standpoint, this is one of the best pumped storage sites in North America. It's been studied since the 1970s,” Steimle said.

The difference now, he said, is that Rye Development’s proposal is more environmentally friendly. This proposal removes the largest amount of water from the Columbia River once, while earlier studies looked at open-looped systems, which would have filled the upper reservoir with water from the river every time.

“Using the existing infrastructure lowers the cost,” Steimle said.

The energy storage project would be built near an existing wind facility, which means minimal road construction to get to the upper reservoir, Steimle said.

“It also lowers the overall impact,” Steimle said.

Many construction impacts have already happened at the site, he said, which makes it less harmful to build at this site.

In addition, he said, the project would be built near a Bonneville Power Administration transmission infrastructure. Project developers would add an additional transmission line across the Columbia River that would hook into the John Day Substation in Sherman County, Oregon.

“We don't have to build a lot of new unsightly transmission to build a massive storage project for Washingtonians to integrate renewable resources like this,” Steimle said.

Moreover, he said, the project would purchase existing water rights from the Klickitat Public Utility District.

Other concerns addressed in the draft environmental impact statement include minimal potential changes to how the area looks. Once built, the lower pool would be visible from Washington Highway 14, he said.

According to the draft statement, aquatic species in the Columbia River likely would not be affected.

For this project, water would be drawn from the Columbia River, a one-time withdrawal that would use water rights from the Klickitat Public Utility District, as would subsequent smaller withdrawals to account for evaporation and leaks, Steimle said.

According to the draft statement, initially filling the pools would take around six months.

 The lower reservoir would be built on a part of former aluminum smelter site, to the left of the trees.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
The lower reservoir would be built on a part of former aluminum smelter site, to the left of the trees.

The lower reservoir would be built on the west surface impoundment lot of the old Columbia Gorge Aluminum smelter, which closed in 2003. Steimle said Rye Development would remove the contaminated materials, including sludge from the aluminum smelter and paving cleanup. The cleanup also would include soil underneath the site.

“It's not an area that had some of the historical contamination that's more concerning,” Steimle said. “It was essentially a garbage dump for the aluminum smelter. So old cars, other parts, that kind of thing were buried there over decades.”

Contractors would dispose of all the contaminated material, he said.

With both of the storage reservoirs and the tunnel between, the Goldendale Energy Storage Project would take up much less space than any other renewable energy project that could generate the same amount of energy, he said.

The Goldendale Energy Storage Project would take up to 260 acres to generate 1,200 megawatts, he said. A similar wind project would need 7,000 acres, and a similar solar project would need 50,000 acres, Steimle said.

“There are huge areas of the U.S. that are grappling with how they're going to transition to renewables, and how they're going to build storage,” Steimle said. “Those areas don't have the geology or the geography to support this type of resource like in Washington.”

If all the permits get approved, construction is expected to last around five years. The pumped storage facility is expected to be fully operational in 2028.

Another pumped storage project, Swan Lake North, also is under development near Klamath Falls in southern Oregon.

These types of projects will be necessary as more renewable energy comes online and the world transitions off fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, Steimle said.

“It's kind of a no-brainer if we can do it,” he said.
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