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Scoping meeting begins lengthy process on proposed pumped storage project in South Dakota

A proposed pumped storage project in Gregory County, an investment by Missouri River Energy Services and MidAmerican Energy Company into the "reliability" of a decarbonized grid, has residents of rural towns like Burke and Platte worried about their livelihoods.

A visual of the Pumped Storage Project
A mock-up of the proposed pumped storage reservoir, which would sit on a bluff approximately 700 feet above Lake Francis Case in Gregory County.
Contributed / Missouri River Energy Services
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BURKE, S.D. — Dozens of residents in Gregory and Charles Mix counties made their opposition to a proposed pumped storage project clear during a pair of scoping meetings on Thursday, Sept. 22, relaying concerns including water quality, wildlife habitat and the local economy.

These meetings, which offered interested parties an opportunity to request additional studies related to the construction and use of the project, were facilitated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the nonpartisan oversight body that will handle the licensing of the proposed hydropower project. The study period will occupy at least the next two years.

The final licensing application from Missouri River Energy Services and MidAmerican Energy Company, the Warren Buffett-backed company that will front most of the projected $10 billion investment in the reservoir and transmission line, is due by the middle of 2025.

The most optimistic expectations predict the construction of the project will be finished nearly 10 years after that, in late 2035.

Concerns from dozens of residents, business owners, water systems and nearby tribes painted an initial picture of the desired areas of study, including the effect of the pumped storage project on soil stability, aquatic habitat, recreation, tribal archaeological sites and more during both the construction phase and continuous use.

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But outside of the lengthy, bureaucratic process of studies and license applications, residents in the proposed footprint of the reservoir are worried they could have to uproot their lives entirely.

“This process is gonna take years, but all of us think about it every day, it's just hanging over us,” Doug Tieszen, who owns 315 acres in the footprint of the proposed reservoir, told Forum News Service. “It’s hard to describe the attachment I have to this land, and it even runs deeper in my neighbors because they've been here longer.”

Pumped storage project intended to inject ‘reliability’ into decarbonized grid

In the most simple terms, the proposed 2,310-acre reservoir set several hundred feet above the west bank of Lake Francis Case would act as a natural battery .

When renewable energy is in a surplus, such as on a sunny or windy day, the project would use wind and solar energy to pump water uphill into the reservoir. When those variable energy sources are overwhelmed by demand, the water would be let downhill and generate hydropower.

A mock-up of the project footprint.
A map of the project's projected footprint. To the west of the river is the reservoir, while to the east, extending into Charles Mix County, is the transmission line that will bring the electricity to market.
Figure from the Pre-Application Document

According to Terry Wolf, the vice president of power supply and operations at Missouri River Energy Services, the project is not a “net producer of energy.” Factoring in friction, about 75% of the renewable energy used to pump the water will make it into the electric supply through hydropower.

To turn a profit despite consuming more energy than is produced, the project plans to use energy during low cost periods and sell during periods of higher cost. Wolf said the major buyers of generated power would be the Southwest Power Pool and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator markets, which cover a substantial portion of the Midwest and parts of the South.

“When there's scarcity pricing, that's how the market responds,” Wolf said. “But our primary concern is having energy available when it's needed.”

During the scoping meeting, several residents pointed to this inefficiency, along with the extensive construction process and the replacement of carbon-sequestering trees and grasslands required to build the reservoir, as reasons to question the climate-friendly presentation of the project.

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For proponents of the project, pumped storage is not necessarily about being climate-friendly on its own. Rather, it’s part of injecting reliability into a grid that is projected to move further from carbon-based fuel sources in the coming decades.

“Pumped storage is almost like a sponge,” LeRoy Coleman, the director of communications for the National Hydropower Association, told Forum News Service on Sept. 22. “It's soaking up the excess generation from wind and solar, to pump the water up. And then it's available when the grid needs it.”

Pumped storage reservoirs have been in use for decades in conjunction with hydroelectric dams around the country , but it’s only recently that they’ve been the subject of renewed interest in the context of decarbonization.

In the recent Inflation Reduction Act, tax credits for renewable energy were extended to energy storage projects such as the proposed build in Gregory. The investment tax credit as currently worded would be worth as much as 30% of the investment, assuming the project follows certain wage and hiring requirements.

While the expected 2035 completion date for the project would place it outside of the current period of eligibility for tax credits, Congress could extend these tax credits at a later date.

Scoping meeting fleshes out economic concerns

The proposed reservoir and related transmission line has been a continuous topic of discussion in Gregory and surrounding areas. Fawn Swift, who could lose acreage that has been in her family for several generations, has helped organize much of the opposition to the project. On Monday, Sept, 19, she held an informational meeting attended by more than 150 residents.

“Our children will be the fifth generation farming in this location,” Swift said about the reason for her opposition to the project. “It would definitely be taking their opportunities away.”

Fawn Swift
Fawn Swift, a local mother who has organized hundreds of residents in opposing the project.
Courtesy Fawn Swift

The Sept. 22 scoping meeting offered residents an opportunity to request additional areas of study and, in doing so, voice their continued opposition.

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These studies would come in addition to the 19 planned areas of study in the pre-application document filed by the project’s backers, such as the effect on the water level of the Missouri River and the impact on aquatic populations.

One source of resistance to the project has been the state’s indigenous populations. Representatives from the Yankton and Rosebud tribes made clear their concerns about an infringement on water rights and a possible destruction of cultural artifacts.

For residents in the more immediate area, the major concerns and study requests boiled down to the potential impact on the local economy.

Though the application document calls for a study to “identify and evaluate socioeconomic impacts and benefits associated with the construction and operation” of the project, the scoping meeting fleshed out the specific impacts feared by residents, which they think would offset the tax revenue from construction and use that the company says will offset any losses.

On the side of recreation, Lee Qualm, who owns God’s Country Campground just across the river in Platte, says the effect on recreation and the region’s aesthetics would be substantial.

In agriculture, several residents made clear the importance of farming not only to the local and state economy but also to their sense of community. Many residents, such as Lisa Even, can trace their land back five or six generations.

“How do you compensate for the loss of a way of life, a business and the loss of generational income?” Even, who lives on a farm in the footprint of the proposed reservoir, said during the scoping meeting. “Our children were all raised working with us in this business. This permanently eliminates that heritage, tradition and income, and I think that needs to be considered. Not only for our family, but several around the area.”

While some meeting attendees asked Missouri River Energy Services to think of a new place to put the project, Wolf told Forum News Service that any changes would be minor reconfigurations of the reservoir shape and size. According to Wolf, the natural bluff next to Lake Francis Case is a key geographical feature and replicating that in a different location would require significantly higher construction costs.

Furthermore, despite project representatives saying eminent domain is a “last resort” behind negotiating easements with landowners, approval from FERC would grant Missouri River Energy Services eminent domain rights, a reality that has residents on edge.

“They're saying now that they want to work with landowners, but if they get that license, why would they work with the landowners when eminent domain would be cheaper?” Tieszen said. “All they have to do is get an appraisal, find the reasonable market price for that property, and then they pay that, so their tune will change.”

A full proposed study plan will be made available by Dec. 10. Interested parties can submit further study requests in writing by Oct. 26; to learn how, visit https://www.ferc.gov/how-file-comment .

MORE BY JASON HARWARD
In 1996, the first soybean processing facility in South Dakota opened in Volga. With the company behind the plant looking to expand to Mitchell, the benefit of hindsight shows the growth that came from the facility, from more money for farmers to the advent of spinoff businesses.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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