Eastern Kentucky leaders have fought hard to attract industrial development projects that offer residents much-needed, high-value career opportunities. One such project in the works, the Lewis Ridge Pumped Storage Project, has the potential to fulfill many of our top priorities — quality, long-term jobs and local economic growth.
Located in Bell County at the site of a former coal mine, this $1.5 billion energy project is poised to bring significant jobs and development to the region. We also anticipate it to stabilize energy prices for all Kentuckians by maintaining our self-reliance on in-state energy production, despite declining coal operations.
The Lewis Ridge Pumped Storage Project, led by Rye Development, will rely on our energy-producing legacy and skilled workforce. With an anticipated daily production capacity of nearly 300 MW of electricity per day, Eastern Kentucky may once again power the nation.
The problem: Long-term energy grid resiliency for Eastern Kentuckians
Kentucky remains in the top 5 states with respect to coal-fired energy generation, which supplied 71% of Kentucky’s power in 2021. Statewide, that translates to nearly 9,400 megawatts generated through coal at the start of 2022. Putting this into context: the average American home uses approximately 10.632 MWh (megawatt-hours) of electricity per year.
Although this may soon change, Kentuckians currently enjoy the second-lowest electricity rates east of the Mississippi River. If we can’t source the coal necessary to power our grid, which is becoming increasingly likely year after year, Eastern Kentuckians will suffer from higher costs and price volatility.
Coal is our heritage. But our ability to attract and retain industrial partners and deliver reliable, affordable power to homes, schools, hospitals, businesses, and public facilities will depend on local leaders embracing new ideas.
As coal production continues to decline, the resiliency and longevity of our grid will rely on new and diversified methods of energy generation.
Becoming overly dependent on one source of power generation poses risks to residents, communities, and our budding tourism economy. If Eastern Kentucky fails to diversify its energy generation resources, it could face similar vulnerabilities to those encountered during the coal industry’s decline.
Any new infrastructure investments to support our energy grid must also meet consumer demand and deliver affordable energy prices. By pulling from a variety of generation methods within our control, we can best serve the interests of Eastern Kentuckians and enjoy local economic gains over the short and the long term.
The solution: Pumped storage hydro protects consumers and businesses from volatile energy prices
As we rely more on alternative resources to power the grid, we need large-scale storage devices that give us the flexibility to use renewable power when we need it.
Pumped storage hydropower is an essential puzzle piece to energy grid stability. Why? It protects energy investments and offers greater predictability to energy consumers. And, when predictability is higher, we can count on enhanced price stability.
Idaho demonstrates the opportunity for value pass-through to consumers via renewable energy production. With the third-lowest average electricity price nationwide in 2022, its energy portfolio counts on more than 75% of renewable sources, including hydroelectric power, wind, and solar.
What is pumped storage hydro and how does it work?
Pumped storage facilities rely on gravity to produce energy. The system moves water between a lower reservoir and an upper reservoir. When renewable energy from wind and solar power is plentiful, this excess energy pumps water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir. Then, when user demand for power is high, water is released from the upper reservoir and used to turn hydroelectric turbines. This process generates electricity on demand.
The system is filled with water once, and then re-uses that water, repeating the cycle of continually storing and dispatching energy.
Pumped storage hydropower technology allows utilities to meet demand with affordable sources of electricity when available and avoid drawing from more expensive ones.
Consider this example. The sun is a variable resource. Its power output fluctuates based on available sunlight and cloud cover. But when are most consumers pulling from the grid? Often, it’s when the sun is lower in the sky, if not already set for the day.
Pumped storage hydropower harnesses the power produced by solar panels for use later in the day when the power is needed most. It also enables the solar facility to maximize its contributions to everyday energy consumers, which can result in cost savings.
Pumped storage is the most mature, common, and reliable form of long-duration energy storage in the world. There are currently 43 pumped storage hydropower facilities in the US, representing 93% of the country’s storage capacity. As we use more renewable energy in the future, many utilities are looking at pumped storage to avoid power outages and maintain affordable energy prices.
The role of coal communities and pumped storage hydro
Amid the decline of coal lies the opportunity to retrofit former mining facilities and create new value for adjacent communities. Steep terrain facilitates water flow between two reservoirs at different elevations. The proposed Lewis Ridge Storage Project leverages a former coal mine site that already has the necessary terrain features in place, minimizing environmental impacts on our cherished Eastern Kentucky mountains.
The project is located entirely on private land that has long played a proud role in Eastern Kentucky’s energy industry.
Since the Lewis Ridge Project is a closed-loop system, it does not require the construction of a new dam on the Cumberland River. Within a closed-loop system, the reservoirs are initially filled, and water circulates between them continuously. Once established, the system requires minimal additional water, primarily to compensate for evaporation.
Rye Development is committed to working with local partners, including SOAR, to employ and reskill our region’s workforce in the development, construction, and operation of the Lewis Ridge Project. They expect to create 1,500 family-wage jobs and apprenticeship opportunities over the 3-4-year construction period and dozens of direct and indirect permanent sustainable-wage jobs. Electricians, laborers, and heavy machinery operators are among the high-paying workers who will be employed by the project.
The Lewis Ridge pumped storage hydro facility in Eastern Kentucky will contribute millions in local tax revenue and help pave the way for future infrastructure investments in the region. We can attract new industrial and manufacturing businesses seeking to operate in regions with affordable power rates.
A pumped storage facility may also lead to future funding and subsidies from the Department of Energy and other agencies.
Meet Rye Development
Rye Development is a renewable energy company specializing in the development, financing, and operation of hydroelectric power generation facilities.
The Lewis Ridge Project will not be Rye Development’s first pumped storage hydropower facility. The company has several projects in development across the United States, including the Swan Lake Energy Storage Project in Klamath County, Oregon. When complete, it will be the first pumped storage project built in the U.S. in more than 30 years.
Swan Lake will invest $1 billion in Southern Oregon communities. Currently in the final design phase, it will employ thousands of union workers from the building and construction trades during its 3-to-5-year construction period. Electricians, laborers, and heavy machinery operators are among them. As part of the project, the developers are training new apprentices who are gaining relevant experience to guarantee higher-wage jobs in the future.
In the state of Washington, Rye Development is pursuing a 50-year operating license for the development of a $2+ billion 1,200 MW facility in the Columbia River Gorge. It will create thousands of family-wage jobs and contribute $14 in annual tax revenue to the local county.
Incentives for sustainable energy programs in Eastern Kentucky
At one time, the labor and ingenuity of Eastern Kentuckians powered the nation. This is our chance to do so again through new means. Let’s leverage our coal heritage for economic transformation and embrace these positive opportunities knocking on our door.
Does the Lewis Ridge Pumped Storage Project have you considering the role of energy resilience and costs in your community?
State and federal incentives are available to help homes, small businesses, and public facilities conserve energy usage and transition to renewables.
- EPAD program
- Department of Energy grants and incentives
- Grants from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet
Do you have questions about the Lewis Ridge Pumped Storage Project, pumped storage hydro, or industrial development in Eastern Kentucky? Contact SOAR to learn more. We will continue tracking this project and providing updates to our EKY community.