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Major pumped-storage hydro project proposed north of Revelstoke

Proposal by Revelstoke firm Hydro Battery looks to build 4,000 MW power plant, and connect it to Alberta power grid.
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Hydro Battery would use a lake in the Monashee Mountains as a reservoir to generate up to 4

Ward Kemerer isn’t the type of person to think small. A Revelstoke resident who started several independent hydro power projects including ones on the Pingston and Alkokolex Rivers, Kemerer was last featured in the Review due to his involvement in a proposal to transport oil by rail from Fort MacMurray to Alaska — a distance of almost 2,500 kilometres.

The project, who’s cost has been pegged at about $30 billion, has been developing slowly and the company behind it, G Seven Generations Ltd., is conducing a feasibility study. Kemerer is confident it will go forward.

“You don’t need pipelines through B.C. because the rail line’s going ahead to a place that has a social license for oil,” he told me during a 90-minute interview at my office last week.

His latest proposal is for a pumped-storage hydro project that would involve pumping water out of Lake Revelstoke to a reservoir high up in the Monashee Mountains, before sending it back down in order to generate electricity and send it through a new transmission line to Alberta.

Kemerer has partnered with Greg McMillan, another Revelstoke resident in Hydro Battery. They have applied for an investigative use permit on more than 4,000 hectares of land as part of what is certain to be a lengthy process to get the project going.

If all goes according to plan, it would produce up to 4,000 megawatts (MW) of power. That’s more than what the Revelstoke Dam can currently produce. It would easily be the most powerful pumped-storage facility in the world.

They also want to build a 4,000 MW, high-voltage direct current transmission line through the Rocky Mountains to Alberta in order to supply the province with energy as it moves to shut down its coal plants.

“I’m trying to shut down coal with zero emissions,” Kemerer said. “I’m trying to help Alberta, I’m trying to help Canada.”

Hydro Battery came to my attention when Kemerer sent a legal ad for their land use application to the Review just before Canada Day. In the e-mail he wrote it was for a project “twice the size of the Revelstoke Dam power project.”

Big schemes will get a journalists attention, so I looked up the application on the Integrated Land-use Management Bureau’s website. There were three documents available — a PDF with maps and schematics, a submission to the Alberta Climate Change Panel, and a management plan.

“This independent initiative has identified a site with attractive attributes for a very large scale multifunctional pumped-storage power facility that will add many attributes for grid support system generation, load balancing and potential beneficial import-export capacity to nearby jurisdictions,” the management plan states. “It should be stated that this project’s greatest ability is to enable the integration of very large amounts of variable renewable energy onto the grid.”

The premise of Hydro Battery is built somewhat on the initiative of Alberta’s NDP government to shut down its coal plants by 2030, and a desire expressed by some, including the BC Chamber of Commerce, to integrate B.C. and Alberta’s energy systems. Hydro Battery would complement Alberta’s renewable energy as it expands in the future.

“I posit why not go 100 per cent with renewables. Go crazy with wind and with solar,” said Kemerer.

Hydro Battery would come into play when the wind dies down and the solar panels go dark. Instead of storing energy in batteries, you’d store as water in a reservoir, and make use of it when needed.

“They need the backup generation, and that costs money. Its very inefficient to have them sitting waiting to go,” Kemerer said. “That’s where Hydro Battery would come into play. It would back up as much wind as they could possibly build to 2030.”

What is pumped-storage hydro?

Photo: The Castaic Power Plant bear Los Angeles generates about 1,500 MW of power for southern California. ~ Photo from Wikipedia

Pumped-storage hydro is a common form of power generation around the world; globally there is more than 100 GW of pump-storage capacity. At its most basic, it involves pumping water from a low-lying body of water to a reservoir, then using that water to generate power at times of peak demand.

The downside to the plants is they require more power to fill the reservoir than they produce. An efficient system only recovers about 80 per cent of the energy used to pump the water. However, because they pump when energy demand is low and energy is cheap; and supply energy when demand is high and the energy costs more, they tend to be cost-effective as a way of supplying the market when demand peaks. A March 2015 article in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers publication Spectrum says pumped-storage hydro will play a key role in balancing energy systems as renewable sources become more common.

“Pumping water uphill to store energy in hydropower reservoirs is an idea that, by power grid standards, is as old as the hills that such ‘pumped storage’ plants are built on,” wrote Peter Fairley. “But with the rise of intermittent solar energy and wind power, this technology could soon experience a revival, experts say.”

BC Hydro currently doesn’t have any pumped storage facilities, but its most recent Resource Options Report from 2013 identifies it as being feasible going forward. BC Hydro engaged the engineering firm Knight–Piesgold to look at potential sites on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland and they came back with a list of 194 possibilities, adding that more studies were needed to determine their feasibility. Using the Mica Dam for pumped-storage (excess water would be pumped from Lake Revelstoke to Kinbasket Lake) is also contemplated.

“We have concluded that pumped storage is definitely feasible and has been built in different locations around the world, but these types of projects can be relatively expensive and would require a fairly high differential in hourly power prices to overcome,” wrote BC Hydro spokesperson Jen Walker-Larsen in an e-mail.

The other key thing to note is pumped-storage hydro doesn’t produce new energy, it simply stores energy for future use, said Andrew Rowe, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Victoria who is also the lead researcher for the 2060 Project, a program by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions that is looking at ways to integrate Canada’s energy systems as the country moves to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s not going to be additional energy to replace a coal plant. You need other stuff brought in still,” he said. “Pumped hydro provides opportunities to do a bit of balancing and store excess at different times and help with capacity requirements, but it’s not new energy.”

Kemerer says they would use excess wind power from Alberta to supply Hydro Battery.

What is Hydro Battery proposing?

Photo: This map shows the power grid connections that could be built alongside the Hydro Battery power plant. ~ Image by Hydro Battery

Hydro Battery is proposing two things. First is a power station built into the Monashee Mountains  about 100 kilometres north of Revelstoke. Second is a high voltage, direct current transmission line that would hook the plant into the Alberta power grid.

The proposal involves building an underground power station similar to the Mica Dam. Large tunnels would be built into the ground to pump the water uphill to an unnamed lake in the mountains 1,265 metres above Lake Revelstoke. Those same tunnels would be used to send water back down to the power station below.

Whether or not the lake needs to be dammed is not known until they can determine its depth. Kemerer was clear about one thing — the project would mean the death of the unnamed lake because it  would be emptied during the day when energy demand peaks, and filled up at night, when demand is at its lowest.

“We’re basically going to kill it,” he said. “We’re going to be selling it on a higher order basis, saying this is an acceptable sacrifice.”

The powerhouse would be smaller than Mica’s, despite producing more power, and would consist of a series of 300 MW turbines, he said. The exact amount of power it produces depends on numerous factors, but could reach 4,000 MW, or even more.

“There’s nothing really difficult about it, other than the high head,” he said, referring to the elevation of the lake.

Kemerer estimated the cost of building the power plant at $2–3 billion. How realistic is that? When Knight-Piesgold surveyed potential pumped-storage sites for BC Hydro in 2013, estimated costs ranged from $1.3 billion to $3 billion for 1,000 MW facilities. The Bath Country plant in Virginia, USA, which generates 3,000 MW of power, the most of any pumped-storage facility in the world, cost $1.6 billion to build in the mid-1980s.

Hydro Battery’s scheme goes beyond generating power to sell to BC Hydro. They want to bypass BC Hydro completely and sell power to Alberta through a new transmission line that would stretch 600 kilometres from the power plant to the heart of that province’s energy grid west of Edmonton. “It would be dedicated to supporting the system in all of Alberta,” Kemerer said.

The proposal involves building a $2 billion, 500 kilovolt direct current power line, which he says is the most efficient way of transmitting large amounts of power over long distances.

“You don’t use it unless you’re moving big amounts of power,” he said.

The big challenge, and the question Kemerer says everyone – including myself – asks him, is how he’ll get through Jasper National Park. On this, he has two answers. One is that he wants to build it along existing right-of-ways that are in place for Highway 16, CN Rail, and the Trans-Mountain pipeline, respectively.

Second is he hopes to make First Nations partners in the project and to use their influence to push it through. “They’ll say, ‘What’s a park?’” said Kemerer. “‘Is that the small piece of land you put aside so you can ruin everything else?’”

Developing First Nations partnerships has been key to moving the G7G Railway through and will be crucial with Hydro Battery as well, but Kemerer says he hasn’t approached any bands yet.

“I’m going to approach them formally when the project becomes real,” he said. “I don’t think it’s real right now.”

How to make it real?

Photo: The unnamed lake in the Monashee Mountains that Ward Kemerer says would have to be "sacrificed" to make Hydro Battery happen. ~ Photo from Hydro Battery

The first thing Hydro Battery needs to get going is the investigative land-use permit. That will allow them to do the necessary environmental, geotechnical and hydrological studies on the mountainside and lake it wants to work on.

It will take years to do the necessary studies, negotiate with First Nations, find investors, clear regulatory hurdles and build it. “It’s not a real project until I have millions of dollars to spend on it,” said Kemerer. “I think the first phase will cost $3–5 million to do a proper job.”

Then there are the political hurdles. Kemerer doesn’t think the Christy Clark government and BC Hydro are interested as long as the Site C dam is moving forward. And he says his recent presentation to the Alberta Climate Change Panel was ignored. In it, he made the case for connecting the Alberta and B.C. energy systems.

“B.C. and Alberta’s ample wind and solar resources, adequately firmed up by pumped storage and other energy storage technologies, could economically fill the energy gap as Canadians transition to a lower carbon economy when the avoided costs are properly accounted for,” he wrote in his submission.

Kemerer told me, “I still have another chance to engage Alberta on this once they’re listening, but they’re not listening now.”

According to Andrew Rowe, the researcher with the 2060 Project, integrating the two province’s energy systems would be technically easy. All it would take is building new power sources and transmission lines. The bigger challenge is convincing people to get onboard.

“This is a tough discussion I find with people,” he said. “The idea of building more infrastructure, it doesn’t make sense to them unless you explain there’s an opportunity to displace other sectors using a good electrical system.”

Rowe referred to the current attitude as BANANA — build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody. “I think it’s kind of the mentality right now, which is getting the way of doing some good,” said Rowe.

Kemerer is a big thinker and he’s convinced people will get on board. When I asked why he comes up with such big projects, he went into a lengthy explanation based on some of his ideas for the G7 Railway. He talked about his suggestions to straighten out the railway as much as possible, and his idea to electrify the rail cars using batteries. In both cases, he said he impressed the engineers working on the project.

“I don’t have blinkers. I’m not a specialist, I’m a generalist. I tend to think up things other people can’t,” he said.

“It’s not my fault the railway is 2,500 kilometres long. Same when people say the project, it’s fantastic, but it’s huge. It’s not my fault the lake is so high up, it just happens to be there.”