Ocean-side power plant proposal raising enviro concerns

Placeholder Image Marc Albert/KRCB
Sonoma County coast


Federal regulators have given the go-ahead for a Texas-based company to study building a large energy facility along Sonoma County's coast. The location is about a mile and a half from Fort Ross State Historic Park. While fairly conceptual, it's raising alarms among some in the environmental community.  

The preliminary permit application was granted on June 29th by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, also called FERC. It allows the firm HGE Energy Storage 3 LLC to develop more detailed plans for a pumped storage facility capable of powering more than half a million homes and apply for a permit to build it.

What is pumped storage? It's a way to save energy produced during low demand, such as late at night--and thus cheaper, for use during peak demand in say the early evening. 

HGE's plan would pump seawater uphill into a new reservoir when electricity is least expensive, then let it flow back into the ocean, via electricity generating turbines.

While pushed by the company as green energy, the site and scale of it is raising concerns. Richard Charter is with The Ocean Foundation.

"You wind up with a large pond of seawater up on top of Seaview ridge, which obviously has the potential to seep in to the water table, unless its a very well lined concrete pond, the implications for the surrounding water table are pretty dire. I think the issue is, it's so out of context for anything else, it would be the largest industrial facility on the Sonoma Coast, anywhere," Charter said. 

According to documents filed with FERC, it would include a 23-acre, 5,600 acre-foot reservoir located 1,600 feet above sea level. A buried, 100 foot tall powerhouse, a vertical intake and breakwater, turbines, tunnels and a channel to return seawater to the ocean.

Charter said there's little local demand and that all that power would need major infrastructure to be useful.

"The project is nowhere near the intertie that connects all these power plants together. It's in a rural, remote area with no connectivity to the power grid."

That's something HGE's CEO, Wayne Krouse, disputes. Though he declined an interview with KRCB News, Krouse provided an emailed response reading, "it is not too far from major load centers and existing transmission lines."

Krouse wrote that the proposal is responding to both state regulators, and state residents in wanting cleaner electric power.

Asked if the connection would involve new high voltage transmission lines or undersea cables, Krouse says engineering studies would determine how to proceed.

While only a preliminary permit, which prohibits the company from entering land they don't own, Charter said that could change down the line if the plan wins approval.

 "Projects like this, under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which is part of the department of energy, commonly utilize eminent domain, so acquisition of property is not generally an issue, they take what they want, you-know, for the public good, they call it."

Aside from calling on local residents to submit official comments to FERC before the September 4th deadline, he's also urging those concerned to attend a Monday morning meeting of the board of supervisors. That's when a new county coastal plan is set for possible adoption as a way to assure local input.

"The question before the county this week, is are there steps that could be taken to strengthen our local coastal plan that would actually give the county more clout, since the developer didn't even bother to consult the county as a party of interest."

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