What’s in it for us?

A recent New York Times story outlines a proposal by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to use Hoover Dam and Colorado River water to smooth out its flow of electricity. The utility has so much intermittent solar and wind power that sometimes it must pay others to take it off its hands lest it overload the grid and result in blackouts.

The plan is to build a $3 billion system of pipes and pump stations by 2028 that would use that excess solar and wind electricity to pump water from downstream of the dam back into Lake Mead. When the utility needs power — when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow — water would be released through the dam’s turbines to generate power.

The Times article compared the scheme to using the dam as a sort of storage battery, noting that utility-scale lithium-ion batteries cost 26 cents a kilowatt-hour, compared with 15 cents for a pumped-storage hydroelectric project.

The utility already operates a hydroelectric plant at Pyramid Lake, northwest of Los Angeles, that uses the electric grid to spin a turbine backward to pump water back into the lake.

“I think we have to look at this as a once-in-a-century moment,” the newspaper quoted Los Angeles Mayor Eric M. Garcetti as saying. “So far, it looks really possible. It looks sustainable, and it looks clean.”

Of course, the scheme is rife with potential problems. How would it affect water availability downstream? What would be the environmental impact in general and specifically for the herds of bighorn sheep? How would it impact recreational uses?

The concept is not new, though the scale of this proposition is rather audacious. The technology has been around since the late 19th century and there are several working pumped storage facilities around the world. Back in 2011 a proposal was floated to build what is called a pumped storage project in Eldorado Valley south of Las Vegas.

Though it sounded vaguely like a perpetual motion machine, it was based on the principle of supply and demand. Like in the stock or currency market — buy low, sell high.

Eldorado Pumped Storage filed an application for permission to study the feasibility of building a closed-loop hydropower facility. The idea was to build a 10,000 acre-foot reservoir at an elevation of 3,570 feet and another at 1,500 feet. During the day, when power is expensive, the water would flow through turbines and the electricity could be sold on the grid. At night, when power is cheaper, the water would be pumped back to the top of the hill.

A similar plan was once proposed for the gypsum mining property across from Blue Diamond.

Nothing has been heard since about either proposal.

As for the Hoover Dam proposal, what’s in it for Nevada? Nevada would bear the brunt of the impact of disturbances to build pipelines and pump stations. Nevada recreational uses of Lake Mohave and the Colorado River near Laughlin could be hurt by lower water levels.

Nevada gets only a quarter of the power generated by Hoover Dam, while Arizona gets less than 20 percent and the rest flows to California.

As for Lake Mead water, California gets 4.4 million acre-feet a year, Arizona 2.8 million acre-feet and Nevada a mere 300,000 acre-feet.

At the end of the lengthy Times report, Nevada state Sen. Joe Hardy of Boulder City is quoted as suggesting that Nevada would be willing to negotiate.

“The hurdles are minimal and the negotiations simple, as long as everybody agrees with Nevada,” Hardy told the newspaper. “It would be nice if there was a table that they would come to. I’ll provide the table.”

Perhaps Nevada could bargain for a greater share of water and further delay plans for that $15 billion dollar scheme to siphon groundwater from Lincoln and Nye counties.

Additionally, Nevada might bargain for more power for rural electric cooperatives.

What’s in it for Nevada?

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.

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