240-MW pumped storage project proposed for Mineville, N.Y.

Jim Besha, head of Albany Engineering Corp.

Jim Besha, head of Albany Engineering Corp., stands with his application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the 240-MW Mineville underground pumped storage hydroelectric project in Mineville, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mary Esch)

An ambitious group of engineers from Albany Engineering Corp. see the shafts at an abandoned, centuries-old iron mine in New York's Adirondacks as way to create the 240-MW Mineville closed-loop pumped storage project.

They plan to circulate some of the millions of gallons of groundwater that have flooded the mine shafts over the years to power an array of 100 hydroelectric turbines one half-mile underground.

The U.S. Department of Energy is calling for a big increase in pumped storage capacity by 2050 to meet the needs of renewable energy sources that are growing so fast the Energy Information Administration predicts renewables will overtake nuclear energy by 2021 and coal by 2030.

"Today, everyone's recognizing that a critical part of our energy infrastructure is going to be storage," said Jim Besha, head of Albany Engineering Corp., as he gave officials a tour of the mine site about 100 miles north of Albany. "You can think of it as a bank. If someone has excess solar energy, they would pay a fee to store it overnight."

"Pumped storage enables greater integration of variable renewables, like wind and solar, into the grid by utilizing excess generation, and being ready to produce power during low wind and solar generation periods," said LeRoy Coleman, communications manager for the National Hydropower Association.

While logistically complex, the plan is at the same time incredibly simple: Engineers for the proposed Mineville project would drain roughly half of the water from the mine shafts and pump the remainder into an upper chamber/reservoir. The water would then be released into a lower chamber/reservoir, powering turbines and creating electricity. The turbines would be reversed to pump the water back to the upper reservoir repeat the process.

The Mineville pumped storage project still faces federal approvals and up to three years of construction, but it could become one of the first projects of its kind in the U.S.

It also would mark a 21st century re-use of a mine that famously contributed iron for the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War on nearby Lake Champlain and was mined for the last time in 1971.

Plans for the project were first envisioned in 1990 as a way to produce revenue from the defunct mine, but languished until 2005 as interest in renewable energy projects grew.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's call for 50% of the state's electricity to come from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2030 provided additional impetus.

The project is basically an underground version of outdoor projects that rely on the same principle. The New York Power Authority's 1.134-MW Blenheim-Gilboa pumped storage project in the Catskill Mountains and the proposed 1,300-MW Eagle Mountain project in southern California, for example, use outdoor, hilltop lakes as their upper reservoirs.

The large-scale pumped storage projects, which have been used for decades to meet peak demand for electricity produced by fossil fuel and nuclear plants, represent 97% of the nation's energy storage today.

Underground projects using mines, caverns and excavated spaces have become attractive because of reduced environmental effects. In addition to Mineville, projects have been proposed for an abandoned mine and quarry in Elmhurst, Ill., and underground caverns in Wiscasset, Maine.

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