Saturday, July 20, 2024

Viable alternative to lithium-ion batteries

By Denis Payre

Editor’s note: Denis Payre is the president and CEO at Nature and People First. This piece is in response to Navajo Times reporter Boderra Joe’s article “Hydroelectric company seeks FERC” published in the April 4, edition of the Times.

At Nature and People First, we specialize in developing Pumped Storage Hydroelectric (PSH) projects both in the United States and in Europe. PSH technology, which has been around for a century, offers a proven method of energy storage. PSH operates like a water battery by utilizing water in a closed loop between two reservoirs positioned at different elevations. During periods of abundant and inexpensive energy, such as mid-day solar power generation, water is pumped from a lower reservoir to an upper one. Conversely, during peak energy demand times when solar energy is unavailable, water is released from the upper reservoir, driving hydroelectric turbines through gravity, and recovering approximately 80% of the stored energy.

The rapid expansion of solar and wind projects in the southwestern United States has led to increased grid instability, necessitating substantial energy storage solutions. PSH presents a viable alternative to Lithium-Ion batteries, particularly for long-duration storage needs. Moreover, reliance on Lithium-Ion batteries introduces dependence on a limited number of countries controlling rare raw materials, with China playing a significant role in the supply chain.

Additionally, according to the Department of Energy (DOE), Lithium batteries have a carbon footprint twice as high as closed-loop PSH systems. Furthermore, Lithium battery release toxic waste every 10 years and their production is associated with ethical concerns, including child labor in unsafe mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo and forced labor in China. In contrast, PSH offers a more environmentally friendly and socially responsible energy storage solution. Our commitment to advancing PSH technology reflects our dedication to sustainability, grid stability, and ethical business practices.

We have made the strategic decision to focus our efforts on developing Pumped Storage Hydro (PSH) projects in the Navajo Nation. Our commitment stems from the belief that combating climate change is a responsibility of our generation, and we view the energy transition as a powerful catalyst for economic development in regions that need it most, such as the Navajo Nation. This ethos is reflected in our company name, Nature and People First. One of our key partners brings a deep connection to the Navajo Nation. As a seasoned Boston-based lawyer, he has a longstanding history of supporting the education of Navajo children dating back to the 1970s. This personal connection underscores our dedication to community engagement and empowerment. Moreover, the Navajo Nation possesses all the essential attributes conducive to hosting high-quality PSH projects. With significant elevation changes and ample transmission capacity—especially as 9 gigawatts of carbon dioxide-emitting plants are slated for closure in the region—the Navajo Nation presents an ideal environment for sustainable PSH development. Contrary to common misconceptions, the region also boasts access to water, primarily through underground sources.

By strategically aligning our PSH projects with great resources of the Navajo Nation, we aim to not only contribute to the fight against climate change but also to foster sustainable economic growth and prosperity for the local community. We have embarked on the design phase of a 750 megawatt (MW) Pumped Storage Hydro (PSH) project, which we anticipate will require a maximum of 300 acres for each reservoir—equivalent to a square with sides measuring 3,600 feet. The reservoirs’ capacity will not exceed 10,000 acre-feet, and water will circulate in a closed loop system. Evaporation is estimated to reach a maximum of 2,000 acre-feet per year.

Our proposal advocates for accessing the C Aquifer, a vast aquifer extending well beyond the Navajo Nation’s borders and experiencing substantial annual recharge. Despite its potential, the C Aquifer remains largely underutilized by the Navajo Nation, with less than 1% of its annual pumping capacity being utilized. While pumping water from the C Aquifer in Chilchinbeto poses logistical challenges due to its depth, we are prepared to finance the necessary water infrastructure at the level of $35 million. Our project’s water usage will be minimal, primarily to offset evaporation losses. The remaining capacity—approximately 3,000 acre-feet per year—can be utilized by the Navajo Nation for various purposes such as grazing, agriculture, recreation, and other community needs. For instance, just 500 acre-feet of water can support the grazing needs of 22,000 cows.

In addition to providing a water infrastructure and a recurring income to the Navajo Nation, our project offers numerous benefits, including job creation. During the construction phase, the project will generate approximately 1,000 jobs over three years, with an additional 100 direct and indirect jobs thereafter. Furthermore, the project will facilitate investment in improving access roads to the mountain summit, enhancing accessibility during winter months. We are committed to enhancing biodiversity on the mesa and expanding broadband access to impacted chapters.

With a projected lifespan of at least 100 years, we are open to transferring ownership of the project to the Navajo Nation after 50 years. Additionally, we welcome the involvement of a wholly-owned Navajo Nation company as a minority shareholder in the project, further fostering local ownership and energy justice.

As highlighted in your recent article, we have garnered robust local support for our project, particularly from individuals directly impacted by its implementation. Those who have expressed opposition often reside far from the project site, in cities like Berkeley, California, or Flagstaff, where access to water and ample job opportunities are readily available. It’s crucial to acknowledge the challenges faced by residents of Chilchinbeto, especially during the pandemic, such as limited access to basic amenities like laundry facilities, which underscores the urgent need for sustainable development in the area.

We are proud to have secured several resolutions in support of our project, including two from the Chilchinbeto chapters, as well as endorsements from the Oljato Chapter, Ts’ah Bii Kin Chapter, N.O.S.T. Regional Council (comprising four chapters), and the Western Navajo Agency Council, which encompasses 18 chapters spanning Black Mesa and beyond. Our project has received overwhelming backing from local stakeholders, including grazing permittees covering 13,000 acres within our survey area, who have expressed interest in hosting the project on their land. Additionally, District S Grazing Rights Officials from Chilchinbeto, Dennehotso, Kayenta, and Oljato have issued letters of support.

Furthermore, we have obtained permission to conduct surveys from the Navajo Nation GLDD in March 2024. Presently, we are seeking the Navajo Nation’s support to obtain a Preliminary Permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), enabling us to conduct feasibility studies with no adverse impact on the Navajo Nation. It is a standard first baby step of a hydro project anywhere in the U.S. It’s important to note that the Navajo Nation retains full permitting authority over the project even after this first permit has been granted. We are happy about the recent granting of pre-authorization rights to the Navajo Nation for these Preliminary Permits. However, we advocate for a streamlined and expeditious pre-authorization process to maintain competitiveness and attract investment in the Navajo Nation.

Filing for a Preliminary Permit anywhere in the U.S. outside the Navajo Nation, and tribal land in general, does not require any pre-authorization. Simplifying the pre-authorization process in the Navajo Nation is vital to ensure a conducive investment environment and capitalize on potential infrastructure investments in PSH projects, which could significantly impact economic development and purchasing power for generations to come. Multi-billion-dollar investments in PSH projects could potentially be directed towards neighboring territories or tribal lands instead of being allocated to the Navajo Nation.


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