Colossal energy storage project in Columbia Gorge will be union-built

By Don McIntosh

A massive renewable energy storage facility in the Columbia River Gorge will be built with union labor, thanks to a newly signed agreement between Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and two area building trades councils. The proposed project is expected to cost $2.1 billion to construct and will employ over 3,000 workers during a four-year construction period.

When it’s complete it would solve one of the biggest challenges of wind and solar power—how to store electricity for use when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. The Goldendale Energy Storage Project would use electricity from nearby wind and solar to pump water from a lower reservoir to a higher one, later releasing that water from the upper reservoir to turn hydroelectric turbines and generate electricity. It’s a closed-loop system known as pumped-storage hydropower, and projects like it are in development around the country.

This one would be built on private land on the former site of the Golden Northwest aluminum smelter, half a mile from the John Day Dam on the Washington side of the Columbia River and about eight miles due southeast of Goldendale, in Klickitat County, Washington.

The smelter once employed 500 members of United Steelworkers Local 8147, but it closed in 2003, the victim of an electricity price crisis in an era of ill-conceived electricity deregulation. The site has remained vacant since then.

Now it could become a big union employer again. According to a memorandum of understanding signed by Washington Building Trades Council and the Columbia Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council, the Goldendale Energy Storage Project will be built under a Project Labor Agreement (PLA): Contractors and subcontractors would recognize the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council and its member unions as the exclusive bargaining representative of construction workers on the project.

Boston-headquartered hydro developer Rye Development is the project manager, and the project owner is Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, an energy infrastructure investment company based in Denmark.

In March 2020, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill into law declaring the project “a project of statewide significance” and granting it expedited permitting treatment.

Still, groundbreaking is probably at least two years away, says Bruce Boram, a public affairs consultant who’s helping to shepherd the project through the permitting process. When it does get under way, it will spell years of work for multiple construction crafts.

On a project area of 681.6 acres, it would include construction of two 60-acre reservoirs contained by two concrete  dams, each over 7,000 feet long and 170 feet high. Between the two reservoirs would be an underground tunnel and piping to convey water up and down  the 2,400 feet elevation and an underground powerhouse, not to mention transmission lines. By any stretch it’s a gargantuan project.

Backers also praise the project’s potential to train a new generation of building trades workers: Its four-year duration would be enough that workers could begin and end construction apprenticeships with no gaps in on-the-job experience.

“This agreement opens new opportunities for Building Trades members and residents of our rural communities,” said  Washington Building Trades Executive Secretary Mark Riker in a press statement. “Because of the size and duration of this project it is a unique opportunity for the region to replenish our nation’s retiring skilled workforce by training union apprentices.”

When it becomes operational, the Goldendale Energy Storage Project will have the capacity to store the hydro equivalent of 25,506 megawatt hours of electricity, and the ability to generate 1,200 megawatts—enough to power close to a million homes — for 12 to 20 hours.

Erik Steimle, vice president of project development at Rye Development, says pumped water storage is a tried and true technology and one of the most efficient ways available to store energy. It’s about 80% efficient, in that 80% of the electricity needed to pump the water up is recovered when it comes back down through the turbines.

Steimle says pumped storage hydropower is often used to increase the efficiency of nuclear power plants, pumping water up during periods of lower demand so that the plants can run at a constant rate, which is the most efficient way for them to run.

Most existing pumped storage hydro plants in the United States were built between 1960 and 1990, and no new plants have come online since 2012, but a number of new plants are in development now because of the need to store intermittent sources of electricity like wind and solar.

Steimle says the Goldendale site has been looked at for decades as a potential pumped storage location because its geology and geography have particular advantages from an engineering perspective. It’s rare to find a rise of 2,400 feet over such a short distance. It’s also a highly desirable site because of its proximity to existing high voltage power lines, the equivalent of a transmission superhighway.

“From Rye’s perspective it’s a really good site to construct this project,” Steimle said, and not just for the physical advantages. “Having it on private land surrounded by a community that’s been focused on pushing this project forward is pretty rare, and most importantly, in a region that is pushing legislation, primarily based on popular demand, to move us away from coal and natural gas.”


FIND OUT MORE: GoldendaleEnergyStorage.com

20 Comments on Colossal energy storage project in Columbia Gorge will be union-built

  1. Sounds like a great project. Water coming out of the Columbia?
    Another good Labor project would be battery farms ( with new advanced storage battery capacity technology) that hold excess hydro power and feeds back into the grid when needed.

    • Why add the mining and toxicity and short life span of batteries? Where feasible pumped water storage is significantly better all around

  2. This is huge…I feel we are on the cusp of making serious inroads to wean ourselves off of fossil fuel…there is a rumor that Gates is backing a revolutionary breakthrough in energy production that is 100% fossil fuel free.

    • Wean off of fossil fuels… how do you think the mines work off of diesel with the huge trucks and other equipment? No mines no batteries. Look at Tesla into what they are using for batteries.

    • How about very very small and so local it’s, well, at home? Many hands make light work. Hands across the water. Viva la independencia.

  3. Seems like an interesting idea, but why is this better than the existing dams, which already can store energy by stopping the flow of the dam, thereby storing the power for when the wind isn’t blowing, and the sun isn’t shining?

    • This is a closed loop system that utilizes excess electricity, from wind and solar, to be used to store potential energy of water and gravity to generate electricity during times of need. Water over hydro dams and through turbines utilize the one time potential – the proverbial water over the dam – unlike the recurring energy from pumped storage.

    • Dams are great but the dams on the Columbia are “Run of the river” they don’t have any real
      (there is a little) storage capacity.

  4. In emergencies could the stored water be used to fight wild fires in that area? Gorge fires move very quickly.

  5. Let’s call the “pricing crisis” by its correct name…”ENRON”. Because most of this electricity goes to California; CAP AND TRADE will have the same effect as ENRON. Also…. what if the railroads were electrified like they once were 40 years ago…

  6. So it’s a net energy loss of 20%
    Where will all the workers live and where will they go one the project is complete?
    Who will pay for all the resources and infrastructure needed for workers, roads, schools, medical units and electric conveyance systems?

    • Renewable energy systems, especially the larger ones we are building right now, always produce energy beyond what is needed. To prevent damage to systems that can’t handle the extra energy they literally have to turn off turbines or disconnect solar systems. Pumped hydro and other systems like it allow you to store energy that would otherwise have been completely wasted. It increases the capacity factor for existing power generation and thus, once completed, is only a net generator of extra energy. The 20% power loss is still far better than the 100% power loss of throwing is all away when you have too much.

  7. No apprentice will get the required hours for each part of their apprenticeship on one job. The ones that start on that project won’t be the ones that end in that project if they want to become journeyman. Unless they lie about the experience they are getting

  8. Can’t they just pump all the water back above John day dam with all this surplus power. Isn’t that the same. Or is that just to easy!!

  9. That’s an interesting idea and I wondered about it myself. From what I understand, for engineering reasons, locating the upper storage reservoir atop the hill would be hugely more efficient. The larger the drop, the greater the power potential, and in this case the drop of 2,400 feet from the top (compared to about 90 feet at the John Day Dam itself) allows for really impressive electricity generation. -Don M.

  10. Does the project use underground holes or above ground penstocks to move water between upper and lower ponds? From pictorial it looks like you are drilling a very long hole between ponds.

  11. Why does it have foreign investor’s at the top from Denmark? Wouldn’t we want our infrastructure owned by U S firms? Call me old fashioned. Also, why is it a benefit to use private land for a project like this? Won’t we be paying rent for eternity, versus buying?

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