GCPBA River News 2/22/2020 – Proposed Dams On The Little Colorado River

Greetings to all of you.  GCPBA has two major topics to share with you, as separate emails, that we have been following and working on.  The first is a proposal by a company to build two dams on the Little Colorado River for electrical power generation.  The second one, regarding new docks on the river near Lees Ferry, will arrive tomorrow morning.

Pumped Hydro Storage, LLC filed five preliminary permits in May of 2019 with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for studying the feasibility of pumped storage projects.  Two of the filings are for projects on the LCR – one located near the confluence, the other in Salt Trail Canyon.  The latter is a tributary to the main stem of the LCR.  The other three are for the Salt, Gila, and San Francisco rivers.

A preliminary permit grants the permit holder a license application during the term of the permit.  It is issued for up to 4 years and guarantees first-to-file status for a license.  It does not authorize performing any land-disturbing activities, either on land or waters owned by others without the owner's permission.

Pumped Hydro Storage, founded in 2017, is a company based in Sweden with 1-10 employees.  They recently opened an office in Phoenix. Their focus is to develop storage facilities to rival large lithium-ion installations and other less green technologies.   A pumped back storage facility requires two dams and two reservoirs.  Water is pumped back into the upper reservoir during off-peak hours, and released into the lower reservoir during the on-peak hours.  Thus, the financial gain is the difference between the value of on- and off-peak electricity.

Here is what’s proposed for the project near the confluence: A 200-foot-high, 3,200-foot-long upper dam and reservoir; (2) a 150-foot-high, 1,000-foot-long lower dam and reservoir; (3) eight 400-megawatt, turbine-generator units, for a total installed capacity of 3,200 megawatts; (4) two new 22-mile-long, 500-kilovolt transmission lines from the powerhouse to an existing grid interconnection point; and (5) appurtenant facilities. The proposed project would have an average annual generation of 8,500 gigawatt-hours.  For a comparison, Glen Canyon Dam has a capacity of 1,320 megawatts, and produces about 4,700 gigawatt-hours annually.  You can see that the proposed project has more than twice electrical capacity than Glen Canyon Dam, i.e. it is not a minor undertaking!

The Hopi Nation stated its opposition to both projects on October 29, 2019.  A group of organizations, collectively called “Waterkeeper”, filed a motion to intervene and oppose the requested permit.  They state that “damming the Little Colorado River on the Navajo Nation at a half-mile outside the Grand Canyon National Park would be inappropriate.” Their motion argues “….  the preliminary permit application should be dismissed for two reasons:  1) Pumped Storage lacks the required fitness for a preliminary permit and is unlikely to diligently pursue a project it has admitted is speculative and unlikely, and 2) Even if the company files a license application it will likely be denied by the FERC.”

We very much doubt that the Navajo Nation would be in favor of such a project being built on land that many consider sacred, especially since they recently voted against the Escalade project.  As such, it is unlikely that they would grant access for the requisite exploratory geologic, geotechnical, and environmental studies.

GCPBA's evaluation of the project mirrors that of the applicant and Waterkeeper given just the technical/engineering aspects alone.   Basically, the unfavorable hydrologic and geologic conditions would offset any cost benefit gained by an unpredictable differential of on/off-peak cost benefit.   You can add your own technical considerations to the following list;

1.   The cost of environmental studies alone, which could take 2 to 3+ years, would run into the $Millions.  A costly design would be required to mitigate the adverse impacts on the humpback chub.

2.  Finances are typically stretched out over 50 years.  It would be difficult to predict what the on/off peak power differential will be 10, 20, 50 years from now.  The energy landscape is rapidly changing - predicting the financial role of coal, wind, hydro and solar energy would be uncertain to say the least.

3.  Treating the sediment load of the LCR would be a challenge all by itself.   The hydrologic landscape for the LCR is one of a desert environment where flash flooding carrying a large sediment load dominates as opposed to a steady year round flow with peaks and valleys of flow with a small sediment load.  The abrasive action of the sediment on the impellers would require frequent maintenance.  Not to mention that, over time, the reservoirs would be storing sediment as opposed to water.  Removing that sediment would be highly problematic due to the high levels of accumulated toxins.

4.  In-stream releases would be required - you can’t just turn off the tap to the main stem of the Colorado.   This would require releasing a percentage of stored water and reduce any cost benefit.

5.  Construction of transmission towers and 22 mile-long lines would have to be undertaken, plus agreements to purchase power for the pump back cycle and the sale back to the grid. These agreements would have to be in place before any analyses can be made about the project’s financial feasibility.

6.  Any suggestion or promise that the project would create jobs for the Navajo in the long term would be misleading.   During the 10+ year construction period there would be job opportunities.  Once constructed, however, these projects are operated remotely.   Maintenance would, in all probability, be contracted out due to the specialized nature overhauling and refurbishing hydroelectric turbines, impellers, etc.

7. ………..on and on………

If you want to read more about this topic, the Arizona Republic published an excellent article by Debra Krol in their September 27, 2019, issue. A similar article appeared in a February 10, 2020, edition of Newsweek.  We will follow this topic and inform you and take action should the Navajo pursue this.

Best regards,
Richard Harter
GCPBA President

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