Inside Climate News
The dispute adds yet another complication to the challenge of transitioning the nation’s grid away from oil, gas and coal.
“Storage is a real bottleneck for getting clean electrons into the grid,” said Daniel Inman, a senior scientist with the National Renewable Energy Lab who studies the lifecycles of energy systems. He led a recent study that found, throughout their lifespans, closed-loop pumped storage is the most environmentally friendly of the various energy storage technologies currently on the market, though water usage wasn’t considered in that research. It’s a proven technology, he said, making it easier to design, install and finance. It also helps create the inertia needed to keep up with electricity needs during peak demand and, once built, can last for nearly a century with routine maintenance. All of that has led to reservoirs providing around 90 percent of the country’s current energy storage capacity, and a resurgence of pumped storage development.
Other methods of storing electricity, like lithium-ion batteries, require mining, another issue hotly debated in the Silver State. Although pumped storage doesn’t need to mine for critical minerals, it can require an equivalent amount of digging, as with the operation near Ely, to build reservoirs and spillways.
But like all things in the West, it’s the water that will decide the Ely project’s fate—helping serve as a litmus test for what closed-loop pump storage projects must face as more are proposed in the region.
The main local aquifer that supplies nearby towns and would be used for the project in White Pine County is already over-appropriated by 75,955.79 acre feet—enough water for nearly 200,000 homes. The basin only yields about 70,000-acre feet a year, according to documents from a local water district, which has expressed serious concern over how the project could impact other users.
“Despite these clear effects, the district was unaware of the proposed project and projected groundwater pumping until days before the deadline to comment” on the project. The district, which doesn’t have jurisdiction over the water and isn’t required to be notified, wrote in a letter to FERC.
A Fight Over Water
Fighting over water is nothing new in White Pine County.
For decades, the county, local towns, tribes and environmentalists fought the Southern Nevada Water Authority over a plan to build a pipeline to pump the region’s groundwater for municipal use 300 miles away in the Las Vegas metropolitan area. The SNWA’s plan to pump 800,000 acre feet of water a year from the region finally failed in 2020.
However, the pumped storage project proposal has led alliances to shift. White Pine County has agreed to lease 8,688 acre feet of water to the project’s developers each year for six years for $50,000, with more being charged depending on how much is actually pumped, but the state only permitted 5,100 acre feet for the project. The allocation came from a water right given by the state water engineer to the county in 1978 for a coal fire plant that never materialized. Once built, the two reservoirs will need an additional 360 to 560 acre-feet a year to account for evaporative loss.
Community leaders in Ely say they were left out of the conversation and most only learned of the project after the water was already allocated. To many, it’s yet another water grab by big cities, this time to provide them with green electricity, that leaves rural communities with nothing for themselves and their future.
“The county turned around and just basically gave away the water to the cities in a different way,” said Rick Spilsbury, a member of the Ely Shoshone Tribe who serves on the board of directors for the Great Basin Water Network, which made its name fighting the SNWA’s plan. “It’s a pipeline without the pipeline.”
Despite the agreement between the county and R Plus Hydro, a subsidiary of a Salt Lake City-based real estate developer, no study has been conducted on the potential impacts on water in the region, even when the company submitted its final licensing application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“They haven’t done their basic homework,” said Bassett, of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, which has expressed numerous concerns over how the project can potentially impact the railway and the tourism it attracts. “I don’t know, it’s a water project. Call me crazy. Call me a little insane. That’d be the first study I’d do—make sure I got the water.”
Shapiro, the CEO of R Plus Hydro, said the water study is just one “of about 1,000 different studies, and we can’t do them all at once.”
However, a lack of details like that and a lack of consultation between various stakeholders resulted in FERC sending the company a list of 103 deficiencies in response to its final licensing application, which the company is currently working to resolve.
To even begin pumping the water, the state water engineer’s permit for the project requires that it submit a comprehensive monitoring plan, which has yet to be done. The state also granted the project less water than R Plus Hydro and the county initially asked for.
If the water doesn’t end up being used, the county will lose the right to it, according to the state’s permit. That’s because the county’s right to the water—which is part of 25,000 acre feet of water it has earmarked for industrial purposes since 1978—has never been put to beneficial use.
That’s forced the county to search for a way to use the water, Roerink said, because if they can’t use it, they’ll lose it. “This project exemplifies how regulatory constructs push communities into projects that are not in their best interest,” he said.
Railway Vital for Region’s Economy
If it wasn’t for the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, the city of Ely might have disappeared. When mines in the state began to shut down in the 20th century, the towns that served them quickly vanished, too. Today, Nevada is home to more ghost towns than any other U.S. state.
That could have happened to Ely, Bassett said, but the town came up with an offer to Kennecott Mining, which built and owned the railroad after copper was discovered in the nearby mountains: Give the city the railroad when the mine ceased operations so that Ely could develop a tourist attraction keep its economy afloat.
Kennecott said yes.
So 35 years later, the train depot remains open. Pristine buildings from the early 1900s dot the 56 acres that more than 100 historic rail cars and three restored steam locomotives call home.
Since it began operations 35 years ago, the museum helped draw thousands of visitors to the town of 2,000 and has brought in an estimated $107 million to White Pine County’s restaurants and hotels. Millions have been spent to preserve the railways and its locomotives, and recent grants for millions more will fund further restoration.
Spilsbury’s main concern is the destruction of the local environment. Springs flow near her home in the Duck Creek Range. That water has been the lifeblood of her people for generations, and allowed plants and animals to thrive. For Spilsbury, bow hunting is a way of life; in her home, trophy animals cover the walls. Few places, she and others said, are better for hunting.
But over the years, game has grown less plentiful. Nearby lakes have been sucked nearly dry. “The hunting has gone way down and with this water project and destroying that mountain [for it], it’ll be absolute zilch,” she said.
The area is incredibly biodiverse, said Patrick Donnelly, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Great Basin director, and home to sage grouse lek habitat, where the threatened birds engage in their famed and elaborate mating rituals. “Once you destroy leks, the sage grouse stop mating and they die off,” he said. Sage grouse, he said, will literally stand at the edge of a development where a lek once was.
“It’s gorgeous. It’s unspoiled Nevada. It’s what makes Nevada great—one of those last best places,” Donnelly said. “So the idea that we’re going to put a hydro project and open up huge access roads for big rig trucks in all of this is just unconscionable.”
Dozens of applications to build new pumped storage projects throughout the Southwest have been filed with FERC since 2017, while more are likely on the way as solar and wind projects come online, tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act incentivize the projects and legislation to reform permitting is pushed for in Congress to make it easier for closed-loop pumped storage developments and other energy projects to be built.
Hiking up the Duck Creek Basin where the upper reservoir of the White Pine Pumped Storage project is planned, Roerink repeated a common sentiment of environmentalists confronting clean energy projects being built on public lands: “Is this our next sacrifice zone?”
Years ago, Mark Bassett stumbled upon a word he had never heard before—astrotourism.
About 60 miles east of Ely is Great Basin National Park. The park has been designated a “Dark Sky Place.” But getting to the park to see those dark skies is no easy task. “You drive out in the afternoon and they have a great astronomy program, but there’s no lodging there,” Bassett said. “So you’ve gone out, you observe the dark skies and now you have to drive 60 miles back on a two-lane highway across two mountain passes under guess what? Dark skies.”
So Bassett had an idea: Partner with the park to create a “star train” where passengers take one of the antique locomotives out at night with rangers on board.
The program has been wildly successful. Tickets go on sale a year in advance and sell out almost immediately. But the pumped storage project threatens that popular attraction. The site where the train stops for passengers to peer through telescopes is nearly in front of where the pumped storage project is planned to be built. If the project gets permitted, it will take at least seven years to build, and he expects there to be lights shining in the area nonstop.
At night outside of Rick and Delaine Spilsbury’s homes, those night skies that bring visitors to Ely from around the world are on full display. The stars are nearly overwhelming; there is no light besides that from the moon.
Outside the smell of piñon pine still lingers. Water gurgles in the nearby stream. Constellations rise everywhere and the clouds of the Milky Way smear the sky.
There are many things life does not offer here that you might find in a city, Rick said, but not views like these, which are becoming rarer by the year.