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Gridflex Plans Grid-scale Power Storage in Oregon

by Lee van der Voo
Sustainable Business Oregon, April 21, 2011

An Idaho-based company has applied to build three energy-storage facilities in Oregon. Targeting wind developers and utilities, Gridflex Energy LLC is eying windy parts of the state and transmission corridors.

Grid-scale energy storage has been called the "holy grail" of smart-grid technology. The variability of renewable energy -- especially wind power -- and the headaches it causes for power supply managers, creates the acute need for a way to store energy during times of high production.

Gridflex is years away from developing its pumped storage ideas, which would store energy by pumping water from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir when the power isn't needed on the grid. During the generation period, stored water is released to flow downhill through a turbine to produce power.

Gridflex CEO Matthew Shapiro said his company is seeking permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build three pumped storage facilities in the Columbia River Gorge area and southeastern Oregon, which the company would position for sale to wind developers, utilities, or third-party operators.

The proposals, if approved, would involve building a closed-loop pumped storage facility in Gilliam County with a 500 MW capacity and storage potential of 16,000 MWh; a closed-loop pumped storage facility in Sherman County with a 400 MW capacity and storage potential of 9,500 MWh; and a pumped storage facility in Malheur County that would use an existing reservoir along with a second, to-be constructed reservoir, to create a 500 MW capacity pumped storage facility with storage potential of 15,000 MWh. If approved by FERC, the projects would be permitted individually. Each would occupy between 120 and 200 acres with reservoirs. A powerhouse and transmission line would be located underground.

Similar projects are being proposed by three other developers in the Klamath County area, targeting key transmission lines between Oregon and California: one by Swan Lake North Hydro, LLC, another by Intertie Energy Storage, LLC, and a third by Bryant Mountain, LLC.

The proposals come at a time when legislation in Congress aims to fast-track FERC approval of closed-loop pumped storage facilities through the Hydropower Improvement Act, which could shorten the permitting process for such projects to two years. They also come as overgeneration and power fluctuations on the northwest power grid provide unique opportunity for energy storage developers, particularly those proposing facilities that can store power for days or weeks.

With 3.3 GW of wind power now linked to the Northwest grid, Michael Kintner-Meyer, a staff scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said many people believe storage facilities can balance the volatility and fluctuation wind and other types of renewable energy bring to the power supply, and do so cost-effectively.

Pumped storage facilities have an advantage over ultracapactitors and batteries, he said, because they can store power for days, sometimes weeks, as opposed to providing a high-capacity burst of power for a short period of time. Pumped storage facilities store energy by pushing water between two reservoirs. When wind power is running full tilt, for example, power that can't be used on the grid can instead pump water to an upper reservoir. When energy demands are low, the water falls fast and forcefully to a lower reservoir, generating power by driving a turbine in between.

In the Pacific Northwest, where high-runoff in rivers and streams contributes to overgeneration in the hydro system, "it would be good to have energy storage to have all of that access generation and keep it over weeks and for times when the water level is much lower and you get a much better price for the electricity when you discharge the storage," said Kintner-Meyer.

Shapiro, who has been involved in wind development since the 1990s and formed Gridflex in 2010, believes pumped storage has the potential to turn wind "into a whole new type of reliable product that can compete directly against conventional fossil alternatives."

Gridflex's Oregon proposals aim to capitalize on dense wind farm development in Gilliam and Sherman counties and a future intersection of transmission lines in Malheur County. Shapiro said the company is in talks with landowners and wind developers in both locations but the facilities will take 6 to 8 years to permit.

The company is meanwhile pursuing nine other projects in Hawaii, California, West Virginia, Wyoming, Arizona and Nevada, focusing on sites near to wind farms and transmission substations with at least one natural canyon or bowl, a short distance between possible reservoirs and a sharp, vertical drop between the two.

"Hopefully within the next six months or year we'll be able to say with confidence the likelihood of any given project taking off but it takes time. The first phase of the FERC study process is a three-year study period," Shapiro said.

If approved, the storage facilities are projected to cost approximately $750 million each. Whether they are built will hinge on how the market responds, Shapiro said, noting that while investors are focused on energy storage, there's considerable education needed around pumped storage facilities in the United States. Such systems are being developed in Asia, Europe and Africa, he said, with some already in use in the Eastern United States to stabilize nuclear power, but pumped storage facilities have only been built by utilities in the United States, not by developers, and then not since 1993.

Lee van der Voo
Gridflex Plans Grid-scale Power Storage in Oregon
Sustainable Business Oregon, April 21, 2011

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