Two months ago, Premium Energy Holdings, based in Walnut, Calif., proposed a Pumped Storage project for Wheeler Crest, which contemplated the erection of three large dams on Wheeler Ridge above the community of Swall Meadows, located within sight of Highway 395 in between Mammoth and Bishop.
While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied this initial application for a preliminary permit to study the feasibility of such a project, Premium Energy has since filed multiple applications for other Eastern Sierra locations.
The latest filing was made this past Monday, June 24.
A proposal located entirely within the Owens Gorge has emerged as Premium Energy’s top alternative.
Two other proposed alternatives would also use the Lower Gorge as the lower dam/reservoir, with the upper dams/reservoirs proposed in the White Mountains adjacent to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
Premium Energy CEO Victor Rojas told The Sheet Tuesday that he considers a project located within the Gorge as the best option for a number of reasons.
1. It already contains existing infrastructure and power plants.
2. He believes the project will not affect recreation in the Gorge.
3. The Gorge would require dams that are half the size of what would be required for alternatives #2 and #3.
So this is how a Pumped Storage project works and why there is interest in it.
During the day, water is pumped uphill, using cheap solar power generated during daytime hours, to upper reservoirs.
At night, water is released, generating power during peak demand periods.
In short, electricity arbitrage.
Proponents say this type of system is far more efficient than using massive lithium-ion batteries for energy storage.
Steve Evans of CalWild (based in Oakland) believes the new push for such projects has been spurred by cities like L.A. which have passed green mandates calling for 100% renewable power by 2030.
Evans said the Pumped Storage craze reminds him of the 1980s when passage of the Federal Power Act set off a rush to create small hydroelectric projects, particularly on public land.
This led to a “paper fight” between potential energy developers and environmentalists.
The upshot. A few projects got done. But not a lot.
Evans characterizes Premium Energy’s six filings for the Eastern Sierra over the past three months as “Hydro Whac-A-Mole.”
“California has 1,400 dams,” says Evans. “Why not use existing facilities versus create [new ones] in undeveloped areas?” he asked rhetorically.
So The Sheet then asked him to answer his own question.
“Because they [Premium Energy] don’t own it [existing dams/infrastructure],” he laughed.
Although he did point out Los Angeles Department of Water and Power could build its own project using Crowley Lake and the Pleasant Valley Reservoir as the nodes.
The Sheet bit again. Why isn’t LADWP pushing that?
Because, said Evans, several utilities, including PG & E and SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) are already walking away from their own Pumped Storage projects because they do not pencil.
The Latest Proposal
There’s a reason why several local groups, including Friends of the Inyo, are skeptical of Mr. Rojas and his latest proposal. Because it’s not just a few small dams in out-of-the-way places.
The Gorge alternative, for example, calls for a 400’ high dam above Pleasant Valley Reservoir and a 375’ high dam below Crowley Lake.
The White Mountain alternatives call for even larger upper dams.
Alternative #3 in Silver Canyon would have a proposed 655’ high dam, which Swall Meadows resident Stephen Kalish says would be the fifth highest dam in the United States.
Alternative #2, the proposed Gunter Reservoir, would have a 515’ high dam.
And the proposed surface area for the Upper Gorge alternative. 175 acres.
Victor Rojas did not betray great enthusiasm for alternatives #2 and #3, primarily because each optiuon would require a fair amount of tunneling – at least five miles worth.
He did say working on the Eastside of the Sierra versus the Western slope has proven a lot … quieter.
While there are a few people around here following and checking on Premium Energy’s various proposals, Rojas said he encountered a lot more headwinds and complaints on the Westside.
“There’s a lot more people, and a lot more who feel threatened,” he said.
That, or perhaps folks in the Eastern Sierra are simply a bit more congenial.
Lynn Boulton, Chair of the local Range of Light Chapter of the Sierra Club, said “I don’t know where a good place is [for a pumped storage project],” but she’s no more of a fan of the latest proposal than she was of past iterations, even if the current project alternatives are not sited in protected areas.
While the Sierra Club’s official position is to support properly-sited renewable energy projects, according to Boulton, the Owens Gorge, “is not where I’d place my dream pumped storage project.”
But this is Boulton’s personal opinion. The Range of Light Chapter has not taken a formal position on Premium Energy’s proposal.
Fran Hunt, a local organizer for the Sierra Club, submitted the following statement:
“Climate change and the transition to a clean, renewable energy economy is the existential threat – and opportunity – of our time and the Sierra Club is fully committed to this transition. Pumped storage projects can be a vital clean energy tool, but they should be directed to areas with existing infrastructure and already disturbed lands, not in special places with high cultural significance to Native American tribes; and recommended wilderness, Wilderness Study areas, and national forest roadless areas; and vital habitats for critically at risk species, like the Bi-State Sage Grouse or Owens Tui Chub. These are serious impacts that cannot be overlooked.”
Premium Energy Has submitted six premit applications to FERC within the past three months, including three applications within the Eastern Sierra, and one each in Utah, Arizona and Pyramid Lake, Nevada.