Climate change demands we end our reliance on fossil fuels as soon as possible, but the road to an electric future, free of most greenhouse gas emissions, will require an “all of the above” approach to existing and developing technologies for clean-power generation.
The Goldendale Energy Storage Project, in development for years, would bring up to 1,200 megawatts of carbon-free electricity to the grid. Though not free of controversy, it is a viable option to help fulfill Washington’s clean-energy goals.
Located by the Columbia River, about eight miles southeast of Goldendale, Klickitat County, the project takes advantage of a 2,400-foot drop to generate electricity by running water along a pipeline between an upper and lower reservoir.
The system would use renewable energy — wind and solar — to pump water to the upper reservoir during periods of excess production. The water is then released and runs through turbines when power is needed to meet demand — such as when the sun isn’t shining, or the wind isn’t blowing.
This potential energy, held for use until needed, is why pumped storage hydropower is called “the world’s biggest battery.” More than 60 projects are being built worldwide, mostly in Europe and Asia. The Goldendale project would benefit from at least a 30% investment tax credit through the Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law last week by President Joe Biden, officials said.
The roughly $2.5 billion project is expected to generate about 3,000 family-wage jobs over its five-year construction and 50 to 60 full-time positions once it is up and running. It would also produce a projected $14 million in tax revenue for the region. The project has a wide range of supporters, including unions, the City of Goldendale, Klickitat County and the five-county, two-state Mid-Columbia Economic Development District, which considers it a top priority for Washington in its comprehensive economic development strategy.
To put the project’s energy output in perspective, the embattled Lower Snake River Dams have a 3,500-megawatt capacity, although on average they produce about 900 megawatts of zero-carbon energy each year, according to a 2022 Bonneville Power Administration analysis.
The project’s lower reservoir would be located on lands previously used by an aluminum smelter, and about $10 million will go to cleanup of the brownfield site. Although it’s located next to the river, it would be a “closed loop” system, meaning it would not be directly connected. Water would be purchased from the Klickitat Public Utility District.
“What we’re talking about is a one-time fill, and then a few 100 acre-feet of water per year to offset evaporation,” said Michael Rooney, Rye Development’s project management vice president. “The one-time fill is about 7,000 acre-feet of water. The smelter, when it was running, was using that amount of water per year.”
Environmental impact is minimal, with a preliminary state Department of Ecology study finding no significant adverse impacts to environmental resources. Troublingly, the one area where the study found “significant and unavoidable” damage was to cultural and tribal resources.
In a July letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, who in 2020 signed legislation that allowed for an expedited permitting process, 17 state tribal leaders urged him to reject the project. The letter calls the development a violation of the Yakama’s treaty rights and warns it would destroy an irreplaceable sacred site.
“For too long, these sacred places where we gather our foods and hold our ceremonies, have been threatened by development without consultation with, or consent from, our sovereign tribes,” tribal leaders wrote. “This is unacceptable.”
The shameful history of abuse of Native lands, including their desecration tied to hydropower in Washington, must not be ignored. However, the project’s benefits — both economic and to the state’s clean-energy needs — deserve careful consideration by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is ultimately responsible for permitting.
A compromise that would allow the project to go forward while respecting tribal concerns would be a benefit for all.