Community engagement surrounding the Plus Hydro’s Pumped Storage Project continues to increase as the Project moves forward and opposition to the Project has become more outspoken about various concerns. For example, the “Step Up for Steptoe Valley” campaign has launched full-scale efforts to gain support to halt the Project. Local governments in various positions have also put their thoughts out there as to why they think the Project is something that White Pine County can do without. It has been compared to other projects in the past, like Las Vegas attempting to acquire water rights, as well as other business endeavors that many who reside in the county see as direct opposition to our way of life.
To get some clarity on the situation and to seek answers to some major community concerns we reached out to the project manager of the Pumped Storage Project Greg Copeland for an interview. Mr. Copeland graciously offered to do this interview in person, as well as provide requested documentation to the Ely City Council.As I provide the transcribed interview, be aware that only the dialog related to key points will be included. I began the interview with a question about the status update I requested via email. The response indicated additional testing was to take place within the year. In addition my goal was to flesh out questions regarding water and water rights and concerns about wildlife, community concerns about where the power would go and where the money would go as well as the housing crunch here in White Pine County.
Doug: “You mentioned you’re going to conduct hydrogeologic groundwater tests to validate groundwater models. Could you expound upon that?”
Mr. Copeland: “We’ve modeled out the aquifer, and a lot of that information has come from the state engineer’s office. The state engineer is the one responsible for the basin’s health and sustainability. A hydrogeologic test is to pump water out of the ground and you do some measurements to test the recovery and recharge rate. So, it’s not just about water levels, there are a lot of wells around to give us an idea of what that looks like, and what it is to verify key parameters like the conductivity of the water, the storability, and transposition so that we can determine how quickly the water will recover back into that one particular location.
Keep in mind these models exist from the state engineer office already. These tests are to confirm these models and to determine if the most conservative values have changed at all. So, it validates the information we already have, but gives us a better idea of what we will actually encounter.”
Doug: “Is this testing a requirement of your licensing application?”
Mr. Copeland: “Yes, the BLM signaled that they had some concerns about the potential for some impacts to wildlife. So, we went through and did a detailed analysis to determine how much of an impact that might have and provide that information to the BLM. One of the species of concern is located generally at least 13 miles away from the Project vicinity. Plus, we also determined that there are no existing springs within three miles of the Project production well field. We turned this into the BLM and then received an updated schedule from the state that required this hydrogeological testing as well. We are now in the permitting process for the tests with the BLM so that we can run the tests this summer.”
Doug: “And then?”
Mr. Copeland: “And then we will send that data to the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), where then they will begin a full comprehensive NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) environmental analysis.
Doug: “So I assume from your contemporary models that you’re expecting recharge rates to be within limits that the county will find acceptable. Essentially, that there won’t be water issues.”
Mr. Copeland: “Some clarification: All of that information has to go to the State Engineer. They determine how much water is available to be removed and how many permits can be issued. So, we will not own any water, we will only be using water permits already existing within the county.”
Doug: “That being said, you’re still expecting there won’t be any issues related to water?”
Mr. Copeland: “Correct. Our drawdown plans allow us enough latitude so that we can decide when to start pumping, when to stop pumping, and when to continue pumping. For instance, if it’s in everyone’s best interest to pump during non-agricultural seasons, or minimal domestic well usage or there is a greater amount of use somewhere else for some other reasons, then we can suspend or mitigate the pumping that’s taking place. Our flexibility allows us to pump when no one else needs it and to pause when usage is at its peak, which allows us to not impact other people around us. Maintaining the health and sustainability of the groundwater as it is now.”
Doug: “Thank you for the information. If you would, I would like to switch gears to discuss the data contained in the recent “Step Up for Steptoe Valley” mailer that went out. And I quote, “ This project will pump more than 1.6 billion gallons of groundwater annually.” Could you speak to that?”
Mr. Copeland: “I think that is a way of representing a worst-case scenario. The reality is we can measure things in different ways. We tend to measure groundwater usage in permits and the state engineer and the entire basin itself in acre-feet. One acre-foot of land, one foot deep with water. Let me give you an example as a comparison. The golf course that the county is trying to get permits from Ely domestic water to industrial use water. That new well that they are trying to get permitted is for 420-acre feet of water.
That’s just one perspective. Another is if you have a full section of land for alfalfa with a center irrigation pivot, it takes about two feet of water per acre to sustain two crops of alfalfa, a full section being about 500 acres. So, a center section pivot uses about 1040 acre-feet of water per year. Five pivots are equivalent to 5,000 acre-feet per year of water being pulled out of the same basin. Our project draw to fill the reservoir and tunnels is less than 5,000 acre feet to fill, one time. Initial fill. That could take between twelve and eighteen months to fill, depending on, as we discussed, the needs of the county and if we need to pause our pumping for a time accounting for recharge rates.
Each subsequent year should take about 450 acre-feet per year to account for evaporative losses. It just so happens that’s around the same amount of what the county is permitting for the golf course.”
Doug: “Okay, so if you do the calculations for those 5,000 acre-feet, does that come out close to the stated gallons, or is that inflated?”
Mr. Copeland: “No, that number’s pretty close. It’s not entirely accurate but it’s around there for the initial fill. It’s not just perspective and relative usage. It also has to do with the impact. It’s like the difference between scooping a bucket of water out of the ocean or a bucket of water out of the swimming pool. So, understanding the impact is important because it is a very large basin. I wouldn’t say it’s like a bucketful out of the ocean, but it certainly is like a bucketful out of a swimming pool, which doesn’t affect your ability to use the swimming pool or enjoy the use of the swimming pool.”
Doug: “Or in this case, grow crops or have a domestic well.”
Mr. Copeland: “Correct. And again, we’re talking initial fill. That’s not what’s going to be used long-term.
Doug: “Given the amount of information that you are required to provide to satisfy licensing, do you have any insight into why you might be receiving opposition?”
Copeland: “I don’t know, and I wouldn’t even venture to speculate about that. I will tell you this: what’s often lost in the discussion is that we have already made a commitment to the FERC and local organizations during operation to honor the Dark Skies initiative. There will be no exterior lights. The only lighting will be motion detector lights for security purposes. We’re fencing everything off because we don’t want people inadvertently going into those areas.
It’s also to protect critters from getting in there. These things get lost in the discussion.”
Doug: “One thing that I’ve wondered since I have been aware of the project – would it not have been easier to avoid a lot of the opposition you’re getting if you had picked a more remote location?”
Mr. Copeland: “There is a whole bunch of criteria you have to go through to site a pump storage hydro project. And it just so happens this particular site meets all of the criteria that are necessary. It is an optimal location. Now that optimal location includes things that are way over my head that are related to the engineering function of the project. […] There are about twenty-five criteria that you go through. This particular location, for a number of reasons – geologic, hydro, and accessibility, you go through the whole list, and this right here; call it a “diamond” of pumped storage hydro locations. Now are there other locations where pumped storage projects can be supported? Yes. This location is the best location for a pumped storage hydro project. It checks off all those boxes.
Some people have said, “Why don’t you put it in an abandoned mine?” It’s not a great idea. For a lot of reasons. How do you seal it? Those kinds of things, right? So, there’s a lot of reasons why you don’t do it in those kinds of locations and lots of reasons why you don’t do it in other kinds of locations for their own reasons. I’m telling you this is the best location for a pumped storage project that we’ve been able to find in all of the western United States. Others are almost as good, but this one is great.”
Doug: “One of the other concerns would be housing. Housing here is rough. There are locals whose kids are moving out or people who want to move here but can’t because of a lack of available housing. So initial labor is either hired from here or brought in from elsewhere- I know there’d been talk of man camps and things like that. Overall, is there a plan for where people are going to stay?”
Mr. Copeland: “Let me tell you this – we had originally conceived of this project many years ago, consistent with other large infrastructure projects that have been built across the country and in Europe, which have temporary housing areas for temporary workers. Since we’ve been listening to the community and we’ve been getting feedback from the community on the housing issues that exist here already, we have decided that we need to hire a consultant who will come in and advise us on how best to create a multi-pronged approach. Whether that includes multi-family homes that are subsidized, fourplexes, or single-family homes… and included with that is the potential for temporary housing that might be included.
That would be a part of a planning process between the city and the county. That would mean that we would have to also be contributing to the infrastructure necessary to support that. What we have decided is that we need to get somebody who is an expert at those kinds of community development activities that would come in and work with the city and work with the county to be able to identify locations and to make it worthwhile. There is a whole, call it a buffet table, of different options that we could put to the table that will help to both take off the pressures in the longer term and also in the short-term during construction.
We don’t think that we have all the answers right now, but we think that we can bring the people to the table that are really really smart about how to do that, that will work with the city and the county to identify the right place and the right way so that there’s long term prosperity for the community.”
Doug: “This would still be a little ways off considering where you are in the process. You’ve got time to find consultants and get that process worked out?”
Mr. Copeland: “ Exactly correct. We think it’s going to be a combination of a lot of different elements that are going to be needed to be able to make it work. At the end of the day, if we’re going to be here for the long term, it’s important for us to be able to support the community in those ways. We don’t want to be viewed as a “boom or bust”, as a come-in and establish temporary housing as the only option. That is not the intent here, we really want to be a part of the in fill to the community.”
Doug: “The last questions I have are about the overall nature of the project, the big picture. I’m curious about the nature of how efficient the hydroelectric reservoirs are, where the power goes and why. Like what happened with Texas and their power grid failures. A large part of why my wife and I moved here from Las Vegas is the fact that over my lifetime I’ve watched the reservoir drop to the point now where the dam producing power is not going to be feasible, if it still is at all. I understand at a nationwide level, we’re trying to adjust the way we look at energy, and power as a whole and how we charge people for power.”
Mr. Copeland: “Let’s talk about that subject from both a local level and a regional level, and then a national level, okay? From a local level, the project is designed and planned to be a 1,000-megawatt project over an 8-hour span. So, 8,000 megawatt hours per day generation that’s available. When the upper reservoir is full, and then you use it for 8 hours, you’ll be able to generate 1000 megawatts per hour for 8 hours.
Put that in perspective. The Hoover Dam has about 1200 megawatts of capacity, a nominal level. It’s been “D” rated now, as you mentioned. Now let’s talk about local impacts. We believe once we have interconnected and developed the projects, we’re going to need what’s called station service, which will come from Mt. Wheeler Power. We believe that we will be one of the top three loads on the Mt. Wheeler system. Which means we’ll be a major customer for Mt. Wheeler Power. This means the money we’re going to be paying for the electricity to support this station services project will be monies that will be going into the co-op’s bucket. That should reflect in either improved infrastructure for Mt. Wheeler Power’s system or reduced rates for the ratepayers in the Mt. Wheeler Power system, it’s a co-op.
Doug: “White Pine County.”
Mr. Copeland: “Everybody. The project is expected to generate about 12 million dollars per year of property tax revenue for the county. That’s after any tax abatements available from the state. After you cut it down, carve it down. Now that could change with legislation, but as it stands right now, that’s about 12 million dollars per year. Right now, the current county budget is about that much. So, you’re talking about county property taxes which would double – which improves filling in potholes and providing services for the county. Double your current county budget.
Every year, not just one year, and not just over ten years. It’s every year going forward. The property values in the county are used for your assessed values, for your bonding capacity, for your school district, and for other infrastructure development projects that you have in the county.
Your overall property values are based upon an assessor going out and assessing all the properties in the county, both industrial, commercial, and residential. This project, because of its cost of infrastructure improvements, is going to likely almost double the amount of property tax bonding capacity for the school district.
So now the school district, instead having to go hat-in-hand to the legislature and ask for money to build a school, they’ll be able to replace schools and be able to fund programs within the educational system that they never have before. Because the bonding capacity will allow them to be able to expand. They’re at their limit right now. Their bonding capacity is peaked out. Right now, they don’t have any room within their bonding capacity under their current legal limits that they have. It’s going to allow additional infrastructure development within the county that will not exist otherwise.
Lastly, and probably the most important thing is electrical reliability. I was just listening in to a joint inter-committee meeting on infrastructure growth from the Nevada Legislative Assembly that had a meeting just two days ago. One of the things that they mentioned was, five days last year, the Nevada energy system had their top five load days that have occurred in their history on those days. They’re using more energy on those days than they have ever in the top five days. They’re taking upwards of 3,000 megawatts per day during the summer peak times from outside the state of Nevada.
They’re buying that energy from outside of the state of Nevada because they don’t have enough energy generation inside of Nevada to meet their demand. They’re having to buy 3,000 megawatts, that’s for a system that’s only about 8,000 megawatts.
As you can imagine, they have to buy it at the times which it’s most costly. Again, it affects ratepayers. Everybody gets affected by that. The project and its ability to provide the kind of reliability to the system is going to not only be able to allow greater integration of renewables but also help to provide the reliability that the system needs so that you don’t have the kind of rolling blackouts and the kind of gray outs that occurred in California last year.
Now you talk about solar development in this county, you talk about wind development in this county, when there are times that they have an overgeneration that has nowhere to go, we now have the storage capacity for that. When the system can’t absorb it because it’s too much generation, we can store that energy. Now instead of having to go outside of the state to get that additional 3,000 megawatts, you pick up the phone, and you call the project, and now we’re generating, in Nevada, the energy that’s necessary to support the system in Nevada so that you don’t have to go outside of Nevada to meet your sustainability goals for your energy generation. that’s how important it is to the state of Nevada.”
Doug: “When you guys come in and set up a project like this – do you turn it over to the state, or do you maintain management of the project and sell the energy based on needs? What does that look like?”
Mr. Copeland: “So what you’re talking about is the model for how the energy is supplied. Because we’re within what’s called a balancing authority of Nevada energy, the project will be controlled so that the demand response and the need for the energy will be controlled by the utility. That’s who will tell us when they need the energy. What you’re talking about in terms of the overall economic model is still involved in negotiation. Whether or not the utility takes on that responsibility, or whether or not we just sell the energy to them, hasn’t been finalized yet.
In both scenarios it has been shown by modeling that it’s worth it to do the project. So once NV Energy, or the utility that we’re going to be selling the energy to, determines that they can get that through the approval processes necessary, there’s a public utilities commission for the state of Nevada that has to go through and approve all of that. Once they have decided which is the best scenario for the ratepayers, it can be approved by the public utilities commission, then we will be moving forward with whichever model works best for Nevada, for the public utilities commission.
Doug: “Is this the first time rPlus Energies has built a hydroelectric system?”
Mr. Copeland: “So, a Pump storage hydro project in and of itself is a major undertaking. That’s why one hasn’t been built in the US since the early 1990’s. We have 2 projects that are about at the same stage in development in terms of permitting and such. One’s in Wyoming, and one’s this project. We have an additional twelve projects that are in various stages of development. In fact, our design engineer for this project just recently completed one in Australia, and so I’m telling you, the expertise comes from all over the world. We have both in-house and consulting and contractors that have that experience.”
Doug: “So just for the United States and for you guys, it’s a lot of the legislative and economic modeling process, you guys are pioneering a lot of it?”
Mr. Copeland: “That is correct. That is very correct.”
Doug: “Kind of feeling it out and adjusting as you go, that’s just part of the process?”
Mr. Copeland: “ I mean, the reality is, that even the legislative climate has changed significantly, that the regulations themselves have changed, and they continue to change. The general mood and trends in the United States toward the adoption of green energy policy have been shifting significantly in the last 10 years. You’ve seen a greater and greater development of that in the last four to five years.
So, it’s a sustainable model that allows for renewable energy development and integration into the system on a much larger scale. It’s much, much larger than what you will see with a whole bunch of battery storage, it’s 1,000 megawatts for 8 hours! I can’t emphasize that enough. That’s one-eighth of the entire generation in any one hour in the entire state. It is a scale that allows for the kind of generation shift that can occur both within a state and within a region because this will support not only the local communities and the state’s objectives but also the integrated, interconnected transmission system as a whole.”
For the sake of time, I had to end my interview there as the rPlus Hydro team had other community engagements in Ely to attend to. That said, it was nice to be able to get some serious community questions asked and receive official answers from the Project. The rPlus Hydro team also informed me at the end of our interview that there will be a date set for a town hall-style community Q&A sometime within the coming months. This will provide a perfect opportunity for additional questions and concerns to be fleshed out as well as the opportunity for the Project staff to provide additional details that I could not cover in one sitting. As usual, the Bristlecone Tribune will continue to cover this ongoing story.