(Image: Cory Hill)
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The Dam in the Desert

Can pumping 9 billion gallons of water from beneath an arid national park ever be a good idea? Some renewable energy advocates think so.
Sep 2, 2016· 14 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

UPDATED Sept. 15, 2016—4:03 p.m. PT: This article has been updated with the news of the approval of Phase I of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.

DESERT CENTER, California—Dec. 18, 2014, was supposed to be a day of triumph for Donna and Larry Charpied. The couple had spent the past 15 years fighting to keep the mountains a mile from their home from turning into Los Angeles’ premier trash heap.

“Twenty thousand tons of garbage every day, by rail or by truck, from Los Angeles for 80 years. That’s what they had planned,” Donna Charpied says, walking between rows of jojoba plants she and her husband have cultivated since moving to sparsely populated Desert Center from Santa Barbara in 1982. A giant plastic thermometer installed in the shade of her home’s patio reads 111 degrees Fahrenheit, but Charpied seems unfazed, keeping a brisk pace as she moves through her 10-acre farm. “We thought, ‘That’s not a good idea.’ So we started fighting it.”

The couple had no legal background, but Charpied bought a how-to book, figured out the ins and outs of writing a legal complaint, and filed her first suit in 1999 against Kaiser Ventures, the group behind the landfill plan. A judge in San Diego ruled in the Charpieds’ favor, finding that Kaiser was underestimating the environmental impacts such a large dump might have on the region’s air quality, water sources, and wildlife. Appeals and reversals stretched until 2014, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals finally ruled in the Charpieds’ favor: The dump was dead.

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Keeping a landfill from becoming your closest neighbor should be reason to celebrate, but the Charpieds barely got the chance. Rising from the ashes of the failed garbage heap was another proposal—and this one, the Charpieds believe, could threaten the region even more than all of Los Angeles’ trash would have.

“It was anticlimactic,” says Donna, now 61. “We knew we had won—the Supreme Court was never going to look at this case—but when we got the news, this started happening.” She waves her hand to the west, toward the Eagle Mountains, where the dump was to be. Now Kaiser has a new buyer for the landfill site—and instead of filling it with trash, the purchasers want to fill it with water. Nine billion gallons of water. The planned reservoir is now in line to store enough energy to power 1 million homes, without burning fossil fuels.

Santa Monica–based Eagle Crest Energy plans to develop a 1,300-megawatt hydroelectric project on the site. The facility will act as a giant battery, storing electricity from the area’s solar and wind farms to solve—in the region around Palm Springs, anyway—a problem that looms over the transition from a fossil-fuel energy system: Renewable energy isn’t always produced when it’s needed. Coal and natural gas plants can fire up or down in response to demand; not so with solar and wind. There exists no quick fix to the energy storage problem, and while technological alternatives are gaining traction, pumped hydro storage like what’s planned at Eagle Crest Energy’s plant is so far the only safe, proved, cost-effective method.

So is it worth pulling billions of gallons of water from under a delicate desert and a national park to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

The site that’s become a hot contender to hold either trash or water is an abandoned iron ore mine. In 1950, it was carved out of what was then Joshua Tree National Monument. In an unusual move, new boundaries were drawn to allow industrialist Henry Kaiser to build a West Coast steel mill. But by the 1980s, production had waned, so the mine was no longer needed. What’s left today is a ghost town, where the miners once lived, and two very large holes that span a combined 5,000 acres in the center of one of the nation’s most iconic desert landscapes.

Pumped storage projects produce electricity in a manner similar to that of conventional hydropower stations such as Hoover Dam. Eagle Crest Energy will dip into the aquifer below the Chuckwalla Valley and pump water to the 170-acre upper reservoir, about 2,500 feet above the desert floor. Capitalizing on the topography of the mine-scarred land, the company will release the water when there is high electricity demand, spinning turbines before the water ends up in the lower reservoir. When energy demand is low and power is cheaper, the water will then be pumped back uphill to be stored in the upper reservoir until needed again.

There’s a genuine value in the U.S. taking its rightful place as a leader in renewable energy. But you also have to concentrate on what you might lose.

David Lamfrom, National Parks Conservation Association

Opponents of the project say withdrawing 9 billion gallons of water out of an arid Southern California landscape is out of touch with current water conservation efforts and will have outsize and unknown effects on wildlife. The state is in the midst of a record-breaking five-year drought. Residents of surrounding Riverside County have had water use severely restricted, yet a hydropower project could soon be tapping the same aquifer that the Charpieds’ jojoba farm, nearby palm farms, and other Desert Center residents rely on. The project could also affect groundwater supplies beneath the 770,000-acre park.

“There are three big aquifers in this region, and they are all in hydrostatic connectivity,” said David Smith, Joshua Tree National Park superintendent. “For this project to work, they’re sucking water out of one of the aquifers. It will affect the other two aquifers eventually—to what degree, we don’t know. I’m concerned about the risk of what that would do.”

The risk includes depleting water resources for the region’s bighorn sheep, golden eagles, and endangered desert tortoises and the million or so Joshua trees in the park, which are reeling from the effects of climate change. On top of that, adding a giant lake in the middle of an arid desert landscape will most likely attract shorebirds such as seagull and ravens, which prey on juvenile desert tortoises and other small reptiles.

Donna and Larry Charpied successfully fought plans to turn a former mine near their home into a garbage dump. Now developers want to place a hydropower facility on the desert property. (Photo: Cory Hill)

A bonus: That 9-billion-gallon figure is just the starting point. Evaporation and water loss through fissures in the pits mean the reservoirs would have to be topped off to the tune of 590 million gallons a year, every year, for half a century. It’s estimated that over its life span, the reservoir would pump more than 30 billion gallons of water out of a desert aquifer that some hydrologists contend hasn’t seen true recharge in at least 60 years.

“Eagle Crest Energy has their numbers that they’re going to be using, and they believe that that aquifer can sustain that: They believe that there is recharge occurring every time we have a rain even in the desert that helps feed that aquifer,” Smith said. “Our research is contrary to that. We don’t believe there has been any recharge that’s happened into that [aquifer] since at least 1945, and some of the research that’s come out says that water is prehistoric—there has not been recharge there in thousands of years.” The California State Water Resources Control Board has signed off on allowing Eagle Crest Energy to tap the aquifer.

With ownership of the land locked up in 2015, Eagle Crest Energy has few regulatory hurdles left before construction can begin.

Eagle Crest Energy President Steve Lowe said the company has been working on the project in one form or another since 1998, in case the landfill didn’t go through, acquiring permits from the necessary agencies and crafting environmental impact reports. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted approval of the hydropower plan in 2014, despite objections from the community and the National Park Service.

Now its time has come.

The sun sets over Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo: Cory Hill)

As much as California needs water, it also needs energy. Particularly clean energy. The state has one of the most aggressive renewable energy policies in the U.S., with a mandate to generate half its electricity from clean energy sources by 2030; a law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by that year passed the state assembly on Tuesday. Recent installations of wind and solar power projects have put the state on pace to meet its target of reaching 33 percent renewable energy capacity by 2020. Capacity more than doubled in just a few years, from 10,000 megawatts in 2011 to 21,700 megawatts at the end of 2015.

One of these new solar array projects resides just 600 feet from the Charpieds’ porch—a 550-megawatt installation called Desert Sunlight Solar Farm. It hooks up to Southern California Edison’s nearby Red Bluff substation, which distributes power to upwards of 160,000 homes.

Many more of these mammoth renewable projects are expected to pock the desert landscape in the next few years. But the ecosystem that’s best suited for renewable energy—sunny, windy desert—is also ecologically sensitive. The Mojave Solar Project, about 200 miles northwest of Desert Center, faced loads of opposition from groups that wanted to ensure the protection of the threatened desert tortoise, prompting then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to quip, “If you can’t build a solar plant in the Mojave Desert, where the hell can you build one? We need to worry less about a few dozen desert tortoises and more about the economic prosperity, security, and health of our nation.”

Reconciling the contradictory goals of reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector and preserving ecologically sensitive natural habitat is the goal of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a document eight years in the making that aims to fast-track solar and wind projects across 10.8 million acres of California desert by designating 388,000 acres of public land “lower conflict” areas where projects can proceed apace. On Sept. 14, federal, state, and local officials announced the approval of Phase I of the plan.

“This landscape-level plan will support streamlined renewable energy development in the right places while protecting sensitive ecosystems, preserving important cultural heritage and supporting outdoor recreation opportunities,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said at a press conference in Palm Springs.

Dan Smuts, director of The Wilderness Society, called the plan a “thoughtful and balanced blueprint” for the California desert that provides a “model for the entire nation by addressing the urgent need for clean energy while protecting important lands for wildlife and plants.”

To reach 50 percent renewables by 2030, it’s estimated the California utilities need to install another 20,000 megawatts of fossil fuel–free capacity. The new lands set aside for renewable energy development have the potential to generate up to 27,000 megawatts of renewable energy—enough to power more than 8 million homes.

But even if the state gets the additional capacity, the problem lies in energy storage—and that’s where Eagle Crest Energy plans to help with its pumped storage plant.

Solar panels and wind turbines are inherently intermittent and often fail to meet energy requirements during peak demand—typically after work hours when the sun has gone down and the wind has yet to pick up. If the turbines are cranking when no one needs the lights or A/C on, that energy needs to go somewhere to wait until demand picks up.

Without storage, the intermittent gaps between supply and demand leave grids reliant on steadier power sources, and those are often fossil fuel based. In the case of California—which decided in June to phase out its last nuclear power plant—that has led to burning more natural gas. It emits less carbon dioxide than coal, but its chief component, methane, is itself a potent (though shorter-lived) greenhouse gas, and leakage throughout the natural gas production, transmission, and distribution systems is far higher than previously believed.

By the time Eagle Crest Energy’s facility (if approved) goes online, it will most likely be surrounded by a number of solar projects, storing energy from those solar farms when they are overproducing early in the day and, when demand outpaces renewable energy production, filling the gap with hydropower. That will lower dependence on natural gas.

“It’s unbelievable to me that we still match our energy supply with load, so that they have to match nearly down to the second,” Lowe said in a phone interview. “While there are battery storage options coming up, the truth is, there is around 125,000 megawatts of energy storage operating in the world, and a vast majority of it is pumped hydropower.”

All energy storage systems perform essentially the same function: They take power from the renewable energy source and park it while demand for electricity is less than what solar panels or windmills are producing. When the wind isn’t blowing, the sun isn’t shining, or demand is especially high, the energy is released, producing electricity for the grid. Each system has its pros and cons; the ultimate solution will store a lot of energy, be made of nontoxic materials, and last a long time; it won’t cost too much, lose too much of the energy it stores, or take a long time to release it. The following infographics show several of the more promising solutions.

Energy Storage
(Illustration: Clark Kohanek)

He’s right. Other energy storage options are just not ready for prime time. To advance the stored energy sector, solutions need to be capable of being installed in small spaces in a short amount of time, providing a lot of energy to the grid quickly and inexpensively. Oh, and they need to be environmentally friendly—no toxic manufacturing processes or waste removal requirements here.

California has incentivized innovation with an energy storage mandate: By 2024, Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric must have a combined 1,325 megawatts of storage capacity up and running; other electricity utilities must have storage to account for 1 percent of their peak load capacity. But the mandate doesn't allow large pumped hydro projects to fill its quotas—to light a fire under the industry, the state Public Utilities Commission is asking for a range of technologies.

“You’re talking about the Swiss army knife of the grid,” said Ravi Manghani, director of energy storage at GTM Research, a market analysis firm. Yet, he continued, “each storage technology really has its own characteristics of how it can scale, the economics behind it, what kind of applications it can evolve into. The answer could really be an all-of-the-above strategy. A decade or two ago, you could only conceptualize energy storage as pumped hydro, but true battery storage projects are getting deployed now, as the cost-benefits come into alignment,” Manghani said.

Energy Storage
(Illustration: Clark Kohanek)

Battery installations are increasing in the U.S. and abroad, but none yet approaches the amount of storage Eagle Crest Energy wants to provide. Worldwide, the combined capacity of battery-based grid storage online or in planning stands at 480 megawatts across 156 projects. The largest in the U.S.—at 32 megawatts—is in Laurel Mountain in West Virginia. Compare that to the 3,000-megawatt capacity of the nation’s largest pumped hydro storage facility, in Bath County, Virginia. As for other solutions, people have tried flywheels, but they don’t last. Compressed air loses 45 percent of the energy stored when it releases its power to the grid. Residential battery storage is ramping up—8.9 megawatts were added in the United States during the first quarter of 2016, bringing the total to around 100 megawatts—but it’s expensive and only makes sense for people with solar panels or similar distributed energy systems on their property.

For now, that leaves pumped hydro, and for precisely the reason environmentalists oppose its installation near Joshua Tree National Park, hydroelectricity is a declining power source. Ten years ago, it produced three times more energy than all other renewable energy sources in the country combined. The rise of wind and solar coupled with years-long droughts across California, Texas, and Nevada have pushed hydro to the back of the pack.

Energy Storage
(Illustration: Clark Kohanek)

Pressure on water resources seems to have affected pumped hydro as well. “A pumped hydro storage project is going to take 15 years to permit, and they’ve been at it even longer than that at Eagle Mountain,” said Jim Kelly, who spent 38 years in R&D and engineering positions at Southern California Edison, constructing multiple pumped storage projects in that time. “The issue is the water. Unless you’re in Canada, where water is abundant, you’re trying to convince Californians who can’t water their lawns that it will be a good idea to pour millions of gallons of water into a reservoir.” According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, there are 24 pumped-storage projects in operation nationwide, with a total installed capacity of about 16,500 megawatts. Only one of those projects has been authorized in the past 30 years. “It’s a hard sell,” said Kelly.

But sell they try. Lowe takes issue with those calling his project’s planned water use excessive. “On average over the project’s 50-year life, it would use about 1,800 acre-feet of water per year, which is roughly equal to what just two of the Coachella Valley’s 123 golf courses consume annually,” he said. “Eagle Crest believes this is a responsible use of resources to help meet California’s mandate to reduce greenhouse gases.”

He’s not alone. A new report from the Department of Energy revealed that hydropower could grow by nearly 50 percent, from 101 gigawatts today to 150 gigawatts by 2050, without damming any new rivers. Instead, the agency calls for a majority of the new capacity—36 gigawatts—to come from new pumped storage installations.

Energy Storage
(Illustration: Clark Kohanek)

An increase on that level would considerably raise the percentage of emission-free energy nationwide and give states a boost in their efforts to reduce carbon emissions 32 percent by 2030—a goal of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

It could be coming. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has seen an uptick in requests for pumped storage permits in recent years, with 21 projects currently under review.

“Hydropower has provided clean, affordable, and reliable electricity in the United States for more than a century, and pumped-storage complements today’s rapidly growing variable technologies such as wind and solar,” Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said in a statement. “The report clearly shows an expanded role for hydropower and pumped storage in our clean energy future.”

Still, the number of potential pumped storage sites with all the prerequisites in place—topography, access to water, and proximity to a grid flush with solar and wind power—are few. That the abandoned Eagle Mountain mine site appears to be one of them is something of a curse for advocates of the park and the region. Desert communities often get stuck with the Sophie’s choice of accommodating renewable energy projects that can curtail greenhouse gases emissions or protecting the ecosystem, says David Lamfrom, director of the California Desert and National Wildlife programs at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Energy Storage
(Illustration: Clark Kohanek)

“There’s a genuine value in the U.S. taking its rightful place as a leader in renewable energy,” he said. “But you also have to concentrate on what you might lose. The federal government sees it as forward-looking, but the heavy-handed nature by which they’ve forced really bad projects to be sited in the California desert has sometimes caused significantly more harm than good. Creating a giant lake in the middle of a very, very dry desert is going to have enormous impacts. Will the benefit exceed that?”

Kim Floyd, conservation chair at Sierra Club’s San Gorgonio Chapter, said the group would like to see the property returned to Joshua Tree National Park.

“But if it isn’t protected, and pumped storage is in the plan, we’d like to make sure that this site is the best alternative for that type of project, compared to other sites,” Floyd said.

Left: The upper mine pit at Eagle Mountain is to be used as the upper reservoir for the Eagle Crest Energy pumped storage project. Right: The lower mine pit at Eagle Mountain is to be used as the lower reservoir. (Photos: Courtesy Eagle Crest Energy)

At Joshua Tree National Park’s headquarters in Twentynine Palms, Smith says he understands the sustainability component of the project.

“I’m not a salesman for Eagle Crest Energy, but it’s an incredibly efficient way of instantly producing power,” Smith said. “You just open the gates. From that standpoint, it’s a really nice mechanism to have.”

Still, he wrestles with having to choose between a project that helps cut climate-warming carbon emissions and protecting park resources.

“For a lot of folks, the idea of putting pumped hydro storage in the middle of the desert seemed so far-fetched that it didn’t seem even possible,” Smith said.

He grew up in Oceanside, about two and a half hours from Joshua Tree. Years before he would be in charge of protecting the park’s resources, Smith spent many family trips camping in Joshua Tree, climbing boulders and exploring the desert expanse. Now, at 48, he is singularly positioned to see global warming’s impact on the park. Once healthy stands of Joshua trees are now struggling to survive below 3,000 feet of elevation. Record temperatures and drought forced rangers to close the popular trail to 49 Palms Oasis to ensure its timid bighorn sheep are not scared away from one of the last water sources in the park.

“Here’s the really challenging thing: This administration is really committed to slowing global warming as much as possible, and they’re looking for some way to have 24-7 power that is green,” Smith said. “My job is to take care of this park. The secretary [of the interior] and the president’s job are to look at the future of this country and this planet.… I’m not thrilled, obviously, by the idea of putting a large lake adjacent to the park that has the potential to really affect the animal resources inside the park. But at the same time, this administration is looking much broader than I’m able to.”

Superintendent David Smith displays a map of Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo: Cory Hill)

For the Charpieds, it’s black and white. The decision has been made, from the Obama administration on down, to prioritize clean energy at the expense of fragile desert habitat.

“The people who worked for many years to prevent these things for conservation, and protected connectivity for all of the different animals—the linkages so they can travel and all of the different things—it doesn’t mean anything anymore,” Donna Charpied says. “This area and Imperial Valley [60 miles south] are the sacrifice zones.”

At her farm, temperatures are approaching the teens—as in 113. Charpied, who has moved out of the sweltering heat and into her modest single-story ranch home, steadily rocks in her rocking chair.

She begins talking about desert plant root systems and how they run much deeper than those of other plants.

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“They don’t burn like a citrus tree,” she says. “During times of drought, they may look dead, but they’re still alive because those roots are so far down, they can still access water.”

There may be less for them to draw on, though, if Eagle Crest Energy’s hydropower plant comes to fruition. The project only needs one more legal approval before it can begin construction: A right-of-way easement to run transmission lines 12 miles from the reservoir down to the power station, and to install a water pipe to draw the groundwater. Both the pipe and the wires will be crossing through public lands, so they’ll need approval from the Bureau of Land Management. That’s the agency the Charpieds successfully sued in 1999 to stop the trash dump.

“We knew we didn’t stand a chance against the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, but we’re cautiously optimistic,” Charpied says. “I’m not a lawyer, but I know enough from doing the Eagle Mountain dump that [Eagle Crest Energy has] abused its discretion.”

After 16 years of fighting to stop a dump, it looks like the Charpieds could soon be entrenched in another drawn-out legal process.

“We’ll see what happens,” she says. “It’s really expensive to build one of those [pumped storage projects], and a lawsuit frankly chases away investors. And we want to stop this project.”

Eagle Crest Energy better be ready—the Charpieds have deep desert roots.