Federal regulators say a Doylestown developer can begin studying whether building four large reservoirs in Lackawanna and Wayne counties will do more good than harm.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week granted Merchant Hydro Developers LLC a preliminary permit to begin a feasibility study for the Panther Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Project.
It’s the second of two hydroelectric power storage projects the company wants to build spanning Lackawanna and Wayne counties. Both projects would rely on the Lackawanna River to fill and maintain four reservoirs.
No construction or site work may begin under the preliminary permit. The permit acts as a placeholder giving Merchant Hydro priority to apply for a formal license and lets the company prove whether it can meet regulations.
The preliminary permit comes after the FERC granted a preliminary permit for the Richmondale Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Project in June. The company still needs state and local approval to break ground.
Merchant Hydro proposes 21 similar projects, mostly in Pennsylvania, according to FERC filings.
Attempts to reach Merchant Hydro chief Adam Rousselle were unsuccessful.
The developer received an icy reception from residents and conservationists who fear new reservoirs in those areas could lead to environmental ruin.
“They couldn’t have picked a worse location as far as I’m concerned,” said Lackawanna River Conservation Association Director Bernard McGurl. “Both of those sites are in the upper parts of our watershed. … The natural habitat destruction that is going to occur is unacceptable.”
The Panther project appears to cut through 1,400 acres protected by a conservation easement and the adjacent Panther Creek Wild Plant Sanctuary, 35 acres designated by the state as an exemplary habitat for wild plants.
Mike Yavorosky, 71, of Hop Bottom, has owned the sanctuary for the last 10 years.
He opens it up so the public can hike and see Panther Creek’s waterfalls. He visits the preserve weekly to maintain the roads and enjoy the outdoors.
He worries that the proposed 175-acre reservoir above the headwaters of Panther Creek, as Merchant Hydro proposes, could affect the Lackawanna River tributary.
“If they build the reservoir there, they will actually capture the watershed of Panther Creek,” he said.
In written comments, Lindy Nelson, regional environmental officer for the U.S. Department of the Interior, noted bald eagles live in the area year round.
The region also is home to the endangered Indiana bat and the threatened long-eared bat, she said.
In other comments, one EPA official said the whole region is riddled with known and unknown mine voids, which could collapse or shift under the weight of hundreds of millions of gallons of water.
Pumped storage works by pumping water from a lower reservoir to one uphill at night, when electricity prices typically drop. During the day, when prices rise, gates open to send the water back downhill, engaging turbines to create energy.
It’s often compared to a large battery.
As dependence on renewable energy increases, so does the need for storage facilities such as pumped storage, flywheels or giant batteries. Energy storage helps to balance an intermittent supply that depends on weather and time of day.
Merchant Hydro’s website says it builds pumped hydro facilities near solar farms and windmills to support the renewable industry. Application documents say the plant will “fulfill the public interest for a less expensive, more reliable and environmentally sound source of renewable energy.”
However, Merchant Hydro doesn’t make clear whether it will use renewable energy to pump water from the river and up to its higher reservoirs, one written comment said.
“If the projects rely on fossil fuel to pump water to the upper reservoir, not only are the projects not renewable, but they could also produce more CO2 emissions per energy output than that of a conventional fossil fuel plant,” said Barbara Rudnick, a team leader with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Philadelphia office.
“If the projects continue to make the clean and renewable claim, they should specify that the energy used to pump water to the upper reservoirs is from renewable sources,” she said.
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