Shovel Ready, Carbon-Free Energy Storage in the California Desert.

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Sixty miles east of Palm Springs, just off I-10, lies Eagle Mountain.  This once-thriving Iron ore mine and company town employed as many as 1,000 employees and housed a community of 3,000 during its operating years just after the end of World War II until its sudden closure in 1983. It now lays waste in the California Desert forgotten by time except by those making the trek out to see what only can be described as a ghost town.  Yet, this once vibrant mining community could once again provide as many as 15,000 primary and ancillary jobs by building a pumped-hydro energy storage project providing as much as 18 hours of carbon-free reliable power during the hottest summer months when Californians need it most.

We’ve written volumes about the over-dependence on renewable energy sources that have plagued the reliability of California’s power grid.  Last year during the midst of the rolling blackouts crippling the Golden State, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) was ordering the state’s solar plants to curtail electricity production during the hottest part of the day when demand was lowest, but solar output at its highest, to prevent overloading the grid.  

For example, on August 14-15, 2020, CAISO ordered the curtailment of 1,000 megawatts or enough electricity to power 30,000 Californian homes.  Several hours later, during the peak power demand hours of 3:00 pm – 10:00 pm, CAISO was begging for those idled megawatts as customers returned home, turned down the A/C, and binge-watched their favorite Netflix series to escape the record-setting heat.  

Unfortunately for Californians, reliable power wasn’t available due to a range of policies instituted over the years by Sacramento policymakers.  These progressive green policies made it easier and more profitable to invest in renewable energy sources like wind and solar.   The advent of these renewable sources has resulted in a corresponding retirement of reliable fossil fuel natural gas plants creating what could almost be called “the reliability gap.”

In reality, two gaps are plaguing California’s grid.  While the rolling blackouts of August 2020 validated the reliability gap, the curtailment of 1,000 megawatts illustrated there was a storage gap into which the Eagle Mountain pumped hydro project could comfortably sit.   

Constructing the Eagle Mountain project creates economic opportunities and mitigates gnawing grid reliability issues in one fell swoop.  It’s a shovel-ready infrastructure project providing as many as 2,000 onsite construction jobs and removing the blight left by an abandoned iron-ore mine. It’s adjacent to the 550 MW Desert Sunlight Solar.  Instead of curtailing solar power generation during peak production hours, the power could be used to pump water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir for generating carbon-free hydropower during those peak customer demand hours from 3:00 pm to 10:00 pm.  

We’ve been quite clear in our vocal support for policies pushing the potential of battery storage to prevent the curtailment of so much affordable solar power like we saw last August. Yet, the stats don’t lie. Pumped hydropower still accounts for 95% of all installed commercial energy storage.  Moreover, a recent study by the Department of Energy found that pumped hydro’s cost is currently half of the projected 2025 cost of lithium-ion batteries.  With an 80-120 year lifespan, they are well worth the significant upfront investment underlining Eagle Mountain’s potential.  

Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu has been on record stating that “in terms of Energy Storage, it’s [pumped-hydro] one of the best.”  We couldn’t agree more.  The Eagle Mountain Project is an affordable and reliable solution. It could be the perfect energy storage complement for Californians who don’t want to be left in the dark or suffering in unbearable heat during the dog days of summer.