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Sustainability and a small ecological footprint are an integral part of UMD’s Strategic Plan. LEED certified silver, gold, and platinum buildings are already scattered across a campus brimming with recycling bins and rainwater gardens. The Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) and UMD have begun promoting this ideal of sustainability to regional energy providers in the form of hydroelectric storage using abandoned pit mines on the iron range.
Hydro-storage is a process that has existed since the late 1800s. Worldwide, its most modern iteration, Pumped Hydroelectric Energy Storage (PHES) is the most popular way to store energy from intermittent sources, such as solar and wind. PHES makes up nearly 99% of the world’s energy storage, and operates on a very simple premise. Using leftover energy from when wind turbines are operating at full efficiency, but energy usage is low, water can be pumped between two lakes, one at a higher elevation than the other. When power generated through wind is low, but energy usage is high, the water stored in the higher pool can be made to pour into the lower pool, operating turbines and generating energy. Through this method, 80 to 85 percent of the energy stored (energy that would otherwise be wasted) can be returned to the power grid and provide usable electricity to consumers throughout the region.
Don Fosnacht, Natural Resources Research Institute center director and the study’s lead investigator, is confident that a PHES facility could find a place on the range. “The water resources are there, the physical conditions are good, and the land has already been disturbed by years of mining. It could be pretty straight forward in moving ahead with the idea.” The study surveyed various sites throughout the 110 miles of the Minnesota Iron Range, and found several candidates for a PHES plant. Construction of a plant would cost around $121 million, but would act towards a statewide goal of 25% renewable energy and a 30% reduction in greenhouse gasses by the year 2025, followed by an 80% reduction in greenhouse gasses by the year 2050.
One of the obstacles involved with the creation of a PHES facility is accommodating the needs of regional energy providers. Fosnacht is hopeful that plans will continue to follow through. “The power companies and public utilities commission must have the overall strategy for the state to meet the renewable energy targets. This will require all parties to work together to implement the technology.” Vice-president of strategy and planning for Minnesota Power, Al Rudeck, has said that "Minnesota Power will continue to assess energy storage development and the role that pumped hydro might play in its long-range plans to best serve our customers. This study provides a good basis for that continued assessment." Rick Lancaster, vice president of generation at Great River Energy, is enthusiastic about a plant’s potential. "We feel that this technology could be a very good fit with our existing wind power and increasing renewable energy requirements," he said.
As state mandated and moral goals push energy providers forward in developing and utilizing natural and sustainable resources in providing electricity, the popularity of facilities such as this will continue to increase. The question becomes less of if sustainable energy will take hold, and more of when. The region has been presented with a valuable opportunity; the resources, technology, and incentives are currently available, all that remains is for energy providers to dive in.
Written by Zach Lunderberg. February 2012
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