Thought Solar Was Hard to Permit? Try Pumped Storage!

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When you consider the environmental benefits of solar power for providing electricity, it has always seemed unfair that it takes so much bureaucracy to overcome to get it built, even in the nation’s leader, California.

Whereas a natural gas power plant sails through the permitting process with ease, solar can take years and be tripped up by technicalities that don’t slow the permitting of polluting power plants.

But compared with the difficulties of getting solar projects built, pumped hydro storage is almost impossible, according to Energy Prospects. Pumped hydro uses off-peak power, typically excess wind power at night, to pump water uphill. When the electricity is needed next morning, it is released.

As we add more renewable energy to the nation’s mix, we need more energy storage, for intermittent sources like wind and solar, so this delay in storage is a real roadblock. Last year 25 Terawatt hours of wind power had to be idled for lack of energy storage.

Because it is a hydro resource, pumped storage is governed by the notoriously slow pace of FERC permitting. Pumped-hydro projects can literally take decades.

One company that has successfully stayed more or less in business throughout the permitting process for traditional pumped hydro storage is Symbiotics, which is based in Utah. They received preliminary permits from FERC for two Utah pumped-hydro projects, one that has a capacity of 700 MW in Rich County, due online in 2020, and another, in Piutte County, Utah, with a capacity of about 1,330 MW, due online in 2017.

During this long drawn out process, Symbiotics was bought out by a new kind of hydro-power startup, Riverbank Power, which acquired Symbiotics in a merger a few months ago. Riverbank Power is the highly innovative company we wrote about last year that uses gravity under rivers to store hydro power: Pump Hydro Underground to Store Wind Power.

Vince Lamarra, founder and former CEO of  Symbiotics, and now vice president of project development at Riverbank Power, is sanguine about the time it takes to get permitted and built; about a decade.

“In a best-case scenario, you might be able to get a federal license in five years, but then it takes another two years for the engineering and then three more years to build a pumped-storage project, and they cost about $1.5 billion to $2 billion to build, because they are very large facilities,” he said.

Learning from the experience of past failures to get permits by Symbiotics, the new merged company looks for sites where it is possible to develop man-made closed-loop systems, like Riverbank Power innovated.

Closed-loop systems use upper and lower reservoirs connected by sealed penstocks, and often use water acquired from irrigation or other groundwater rights holders. Because these are man-made water reservoirs, there is minimal environmental impact. This speeds permitting, but makes for a much larger footprint, with associated expense.

Fortunately, under the much more renewable-friendly new FERC director, Jon Wellinghoff, FERC now has a fire under it. Since 2008, 36 other projects in the West have received preliminary permits, and there are 9 new applications.

Image: Pumped storage on Lake Michigan

Susan Kraemer@Twitter

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