This page covers everything you need to know about Premium Energy Holdings, LLC’s proposed Ashokan Pumped Storage Project. You can view a PDF of the entire proposal here.
What’s being proposed?
Premium Energy Holdings, LLC—a private electric company based in California—is proposing to construct a massive new reservoir, dam, and underground power station to harness the Ashokan Reservoir and its watershed for hydroelectric power. The new reservoir is being proposed for one of three locations in Olive, Woodland, or Lanesville, NY (see the maps below for location details)—all of which are populated areas inside of the Catskill park, also known as the Catskill Forest Preserve.
The proposed project would require the seizing of private property via eminent domain, the flooding of over 200 acres—many of which are highly preserved forests on protected state land—and the construction of a massive concrete dam up to 300 feet tall. The new reservoir would be connected to the Ashokan Reservoir by a tunnel up to 50 feet wide and many miles long, drilled under both public and private lands, and the erection of 12.9 miles of 230kV high-tension transmission lines.
For a thorough understanding of what’s being proposed and why, watch journalist Ginger Strand‘s video presentation from March 18th:
A PDF of the above presentation can be viewed here.
The maps included in the above gallery show the potential locations that could be affected by Premium Energy’s proposal. Click here to view the three potential locations on Google Maps.
How does pumped storage work?
To put it simply, pumped storage is a way to use water to create a massive battery. Water flowing from a higher elevation (in this case, a new reservoir) to a lower elevation (in this case, the Ashokan Reservoir) would be used to generate energy during peak-demand daytime hours, and when energy is cheap at night, water would be pumped back up from the lower elevation to the higher elevation to repeat the process the next day.
In a controlled system where you have two bodies of water at different altitudes, this can be a useful way to store energy. However, pumped storage plants are incredibly costly to build, and don’t always make sense due to some significant disadvantages. For one, pumping water to the upper reservoir can take more power than what’s generated as the water flows back down, and is therefore a form of “energy arbitrage,” burning through cheap power to make expensive power. It can also create rapid fluctuations of water in the upper reservoir, which can wreak havoc on local ecosystems. While hydropower reduces greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, reservoirs themselves produce methane, a particularly harmful greenhouse gas.
There are both up-sides and down-sides to pumped storage, but one thing is for sure: Constructing a pumped storage plant within a highly preserved ecosystem—and using a valuable watershed and existing reservoir relied on by millions of people daily—is simply not wise.
To learn more about how pumped storage works, watch this video.
What’s happening now?
Premium Energy has delivered their proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and we have until April 12, 2021 to make a case for why this proposal should not move forward. If Premium Energy’s request for a preliminary permit is approved, it would give them priority to file a license application while gathering data and conducting a 3-5 year feasibility study for the project (note that preliminary approval would not authorize construction or any other land-disturbing activities).
After completing the feasibility studies, Premium Energy would have to use their findings to apply for a license to move the process forward. If approved, it would authorize construction and operation of the new Ashokan Pumped Storage Project.
Why has this project been proposed?
Pumped storage will play a key role in our country’s green-energy future—and it’s also a booming market. As our country leans into renewable energy sources (a great thing!), Premium Energy is looking to capitalize on the Ashokan watershed as a potentially massive hydroelectric site, which, if built, would make them a ton of money.
Currently, the NYS Clean Energy Standard is pushing New York’s electricity to be composed of 70% renewables by 2030. With this ambitious goal, the need to accompany wind and solar power with energy storage has increased. 95% of utility-scale energy storage in the U.S. is comprised of pumped-hydro storage, and the market is expected to triple in value in 2021.
We understand that infrastructure often involves trade-offs between individual rights and the public good. Almost every pumped storage hydroelectric plant required taking homes and land via eminent domain—often from Native Americans. The question is not “if” we need pumped storage, but where it should be built.
What’s wrong with the proposal?
There are many reasons why Premium Energy’s Ashokan Pumped Storage Project is not right for the Catskill Mountains. Here are a few:
- It would devastate highly preserved and protected land.
- The Catskills Forest Preserve was created in 1885, and the NYS Constitution states that the lands “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands, [and] shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private.” The forests around the proposed sites rank among the top 1% of forest habitats region-wide, and are considered Status 2 land under USGS “Gap Analysis Program.” According to the Dept. of Energy’s own Hydropower Vision, “areas with formal protections designated as Status 1 or 2 under the USGS Gap Analysis Program are avoided for development.”
- It would negatively impact the stream ecology of the Ashokan watershed.
- Pumped storage reservoirs are subject to rapid fluctuations of water, causing them to wreak havoc on surrounding wildlife habitats. Additionally, altering the sediment regime in tributaries to the Esopus will alter the sediment regime in the Esopus itself, which is one of the Catskills’ most vital trout breeding habitats, and part of the NYC water supply.
- It directly threatens NYC’s water supply
- According to the DEP, the Ashokan Reservoir provides 40% of NYC’s water—roughly 1 billion gallons a day to 9.5 million people. The Ashokan represents the largest unfiltered water supply in the nation, and is one of NYC’s most valuable capital assets, representing billions of dollars of investment.
- It will negatively impact the Catskills’ burgeoning tourism economy
- Tourism generated 17% of employment in the Catskills in 2019, and is a $1.6 billion industry in the region, supporting roughly 20,000 jobs. Ulster County (where the proposed project would be located) represents 43% of that market.
- This is not the type of innovation that Department of Energy wants.
- Closed-loop projects are considered to have smaller environmental impacts, and are thus eligible for streamlined FERC approval—that’s why Premium Energy is claiming their proposal is “closed-loop” when in fact it is not. Projects where an upper reservoir is added to an existing lower reservoir are known as “add-on” projects, and while initial construction impacts for these projects tend to be lower, operational impacts are likely to be higher in the long run, because the add-on project’s lower reservoir is still continuously connected to, and may affect, the natural flowing water feature that was dammed for its original construction.
For a more complete list of reasons to oppose Premium Energy’s proposal, see this handy “Reasons to Write No” PDF.