When Leonard Jespersen thinks about the Swan Lake North pumped hydro storage project, he gets the feels — but not in a good way.
“I mean everything they’re doing burns ya,” he says, driving his big red pickup on his ranch and organic alfalfa farm outside Klamath Falls.
The energy storage project is comprised of two interconnected 60-acre reservoirs, a powerhouse and 32 miles of new high-voltage power lines that will connect it to the grid.
Jespersen’s frustration kicked into high gear when he saw a project map showing those high-voltage power lines running over about seven miles of his land.
If an energy project with power lines is approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and a financial settlement between the project and affected landowner is not reached, then the company can force the landowner (with compensation) to allow the use of the necessary land through eminent domain.
Jespersen’s concerned about property values, his views and a financial hit to his operation. His truck crunches over snow-covered red cinder farm road past wheeled sprinkler structures, called pivots, that stand dormant in his snowy fields.
“They’re going to take (a) 300-foot swath out of 13 of our pivot fields. So our sprinkler systems won’t work anymore with the power lines. They’ll hit the poles,” he says.
Either Jespersen will have to reconfigure his sprinkler system or he'll have to stop irrigating where the poles block the sprinkler heads. And without irrigation in this dry patch of Oregon, not much grows.
“That’s why we ... want them to bury the lines,” he said.
Pumped Hydro Storage
To understand pumped hydro storage, all you really need to understand is how rechargeable batteries work. We charge our cell phones when we have access to an electrical power outlet, so the battery can power our phones when we don’t.
Imagine if that battery was a huge reservoir of water, high on a hill. That’s the idea behind the Swan Lake North pumped hydro storage project.
Project backer Rye Development is awaiting final approval from federal regulators to build power lines and two 60-acre reservoirs: one that’s high on a ridge and the other far below. When electricity is plentiful and cheap, the facility will pump water up to the higher reservoir — essentially charging the battery. Then when demand rises, the water will be released downhill over turbines to generate electricity that can be sold back to the grid. And because demand is high, so, too, is the price that electricity gets sold for.
The capacity of the project is 393 megawatts — enough to meet the instantaneous demand of 290,000-390,000 homes.
Federal energy regulators' decision on the project is expected by the end of April.
Pumped hydro storage projects are reviving an older technology that's been made new again by the renewable energy boom.
“We haven't built a new one of these in the U.S. since the early 1980s,” said Rye Development's Steimle.
Most of the early pumped hydro projects were tied to nuclear power plants, which ideally generated electricity at sustained rates, even if there wasn’t immediate demand for the power from consumers. When demand was low, the plants would use the excess power to charge the hydro-battery.
With variable renewable energy, like solar and wind, the need for storage is similar. For those renewable goals to become reality, there’s going to need to be electricity storage on the grid that can bank power when it's sunny or windy and then release it when it isn’t.
“A great example is there are large amounts of daily solar oversupply that cannot be utilized fully in California,” said Steimle. “And we're going to continue to see that increase as time goes on. So the trade-off is we can curtail that and not deliver it or we can store it.”
Adding energy storage to the grid is one of the only ways to meet the renewable energy goals set forth by Western states.
Oregon aims to get to 50 percent renewable electricity production by 2040. California’s goal is 100 percent by 2045. Washington’s target is 15 percent by next year, but its legislature is currently considering increasing that to 100 percent renewables within 25 years.
“As we move towards a grid that's 100 percent renewable energy, we need to invest in energy storage infrastructure to meet the region's energy capacity needs,” Steimle said.
In addition, Oregon Department of Energy analyst Rebecca Smith said both Oregon and California have grid storage mandates that are helping drive investment in storage projects. The Oregon Legislature is also considering a new carbon regulation program called cap and trade.
“If Oregon were to pass cap and trade … that would be yet another driver that would further incentivize storage solutions because it would allow us to use more of that renewable energy,” Smith said.
Rye Development is so convinced of the viability of pumped hydro storage in the Pacific Northwest that it has another project starting in Goldendale, Washington, along the Columbia River. It would be three times the size of Swan Lake North and go a long way to meeting the energy storage needs of the region.
“Conservative estimates are looking at somewhere between six to eight thousand new megawatts of storage needed prior to 2035. That's just in Oregon and Washington,” Steimle said.
Two other Pacific Northwest pumped hydro projects are active in the permitting process as well. One, a small 5-megawatt facility above Grand Coulee Dam near Bridgeport, Washington, is backed by Shell Energy North America and designed to test out a new kind of facility. The other is a proposed 500-megawatt project in Malheur County, Oregon, backed by Gridflex Energy, LLC, a company based in Idaho.
The $800 million Swan Lake North project is the furthest along of the bunch. If approved and built, it would be the largest energy storage project in the Pacific Northwest.
Fox In The Hen House?
One thing that all major energy infrastructure projects seem to have in common — whether it’s a coal plant, oil pipeline or renewable energy darling like Swan Lake North — is that local communities are often divided in their support.
In the case of Swan Lake North, Klamath County Commissioner Derrick DeGroot looks forward to the estimated $2 million in yearly taxes the 393-megawatt project will bring the county.
“Today Klamath County runs on about a $2 million deficit annually to provide really a skeletal form of law enforcement,” DeGroot said.
Local property owners counter that the loss in value to their property because the project will offset some of these gains.
Still, DeGroot sees Swan Lake North as a long-term win for the county.
“The types of projects that we're seeing introduced or proposed in Klamath County are going to open more doors for us to be looked at (for) renewable energy,” he said. “But hey, what else is possible? So it'll be interesting to see what this leads to.”
But the big-picture benefits of the projects still don’t give solace to those who live and have connections to the path of the project. They feel they’re being asked to sacrifice too much.
The Klamath Tribes consider the Swan Lake Rim — where the upper reservoir and the pipe connecting it to the lower reservoir will be built — to be an important site.
“The concept of the project maybe we could support elsewhere. It just happens to be proposed in an area that is really significant culturally and historically to the tribes,” said tribal chairman Don Gentry. “I don't see how the project can really be feasible and protect our interests.”
Homeowners all along the power line route are worried about their views, property values, wildfire danger, the potential effects of electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) from the lines, and migratory bird impacts.
Burying the power lines would solve many of these problems. Swan Lake residents asked the Klamath County commissioners to pass an ordinance requiring that to happen. The county determined it would not have the legal authority to make these demands on a federally permitted project.
Rye Development says burying the lines would be too expensive – increasing the cost of transmission 15 times.
“We would be able to continue to consult with individual landowners about agricultural obstructions, particular pole locations and other things that we might be able to do to minimize any adverse effects on their agricultural operations,” Rye’s Steimle said.
Yet slight tweaks in pole placement isn’t likely to help residents like Jon Hobbs of POEtential egg farm. He has bales of alfalfa stacked beside the chicken houses – a green treat for his 3,000 hens during the icy days of winter.
“The chickens love alfalfa, but if it gets a little stemmy, then they’ll come over and say, ‘You gotta do better than this, Jon.’ They’re very spoiled,” he joked.
Hobbs’ farm and home look out on the Lost River. The farm’s setting is a focus of marketing in his business.
“One of the things that sets us apart from our large competitors is that we put our phone number and address on each egg carton, we sell. And invite people to call and to come by and visit our farm,” he said.
The high voltage power lines would pass right over the river, and right through the best view from the property, giving his farm a less pastoral feel.
And then there are his "girls," whose egg production he says ebbs and flows in response to environmental conditions – conditions he fears would degrade with power line construction noise and potentially EMFs once the lines are built, which have been found in certain cases to affect livestock.
“What we want to do is reduce stress for them. For a chicken the perfect day is the day just like the day before,” Hobbs said.
But keeping change away is going to be difficult when one of the most significant projects in the Northwest’s renewable energy transformation is — in local residents’ eyes — the fox knocking at the hen house door.