Power facilities planned for Blair
Environmental groups concerned over possible impact to area wildlife
By creating two pairs of connected reservoirs, a Doylestown company plans to construct power generators in Blair County capable of creating nearly a million megawatt hours per year.
However, the projects, which would require the clearing of hundreds of acres along the Allegheny Front, could adversely impact area wildlife, environmentalists claim.
“It sends up a red flag because they are going to be causing a lot of forest destruction,” said Laura Jackson, Juniata Valley Audubon Society’s president. “There is going to be a lot of earth moving involved.”
Merchant Hydro Developers LLC of Doylestown has applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, seeking preliminary permits to conduct feasibility studies for closed-loop, pump-storage, hydroelectric-generating facilities in Juniata and Snyder townships.
How it works
The closed-loop generators rely on water circulating between two reservoirs, which are at different elevations, said David Hess, a former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection secretary.
Within closed loop systems, water flows through a channel from an upper reservoir at a higher elevation to a lower reservoir, driving a turbine that generates electricity at times when energy is in high demand, thus more expensive and yielding the highest profit, Hess said. The upper reservoir is filled when water is pumped to it from the lower reservoir at key points in the day when energy is inexpensive and demand wanes.
“Pump storage systems have existed for a long time,” FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller said.
But now, Merchant Hydro is seeking 17 preliminary permits for site studies — 16 in Pennsylvania — and has already been awarded two, according to FERC data updated June 6.
In northern Blair County, developers are proposing a Snyder Township generator, the Bacon Ridge Pump Station.
The project requires the creation of a 110-acre reservoir near the Sandy Ridge wind farm, according to a Merchant Hydro application.
That upper reservoir would connect through a channel to a lower, 43-acre reservoir near the intersection of Mae Construction Lane and Decker Hollow Road, according to the application.
That water, developers said, could come from local groundwater, as well as the nearby Little Juniata River.
The source, Jackson said, is troubling.
“I’m very opposed to them taking millions of gallons of water out of the rivers or … using groundwater,” she said. “That could really impact people’s wells.”
At the opposite end of the county, a Juniata Township generator is proposed.
The Juniata facility, called the Allegheny Pumped Storage Hydro Project, also would require the creation of reservoirs — a 100-acre upper reservoir and a 50-acre lower reservoir, both in the Foot of Ten area, according to a second permit application.
The reservoirs likely would be able to hold a combined
1-billion-plus gallons of water, with the lower reservoir possibly filled from groundwater and the nearby Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River.
Suspected wildlife impacts
Construction of both large-scale generators would take place mostly on wooded land, some on what appears to be state game lands, Merchant Hydro illustrations show.
The loss of that wooded space is something the Juniata Valley Audubon Society, which includes members from Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Huntingdon and Mifflin counties, opposes, Jackson said.
“We would like to comment on the adverse environmental effects that this project will have on the forests and wildlife of the Allegheny Front,” she wrote in early June letters to FERC Secretary Kimberly Bose.
Forest fragmentation associated with the construction of reservoirs and related structures would impact “critical” habitats, which are well known homes to migrating bird species, Jackson said.
In addition to the destruction of forest habitats, the projects’ proximity to existing and proposed wind farms — possible grid interconnection points — may further impact migrating birds, as well as federally endangered Indiana bats and federally threatened northern long-eared bats, she said.
“Migrating waterfowl and other bird species will be attracted to the reservoir and will be at increased risk of colliding with the wind turbines,” Jackson said, explaining reservoirs also will attract insects, which will in turn attract bats.
“Bats will be more likely to feed along the forested edge of the reservoir, which would also put them at greater risk of mortality from wind turbine collisions,” she continued.
The Audubon Society’s concerns are not restricted to sky-bound creatures, as Jackson’s letters also predict disruption to local waterways, namely Decker, Blair and Blair Gap runs. The streams and their tributaries are known fish habitats, Jackson said.
“These streams could be adversely impacted from forest clearings for the upper and lower reservoirs,” she said. “Trout are very sensitive to water quality and temperature changes.”
The proposed method of energy production also is under attack. That is mainly due to the closed-loop system’s need to use electricity to pump water uphill, Audubon members said.
That use of energy does not seem worth the benefit of providing additional power to the grid during peak usage times, Jackson said. The Merchant Hydro systems would create energy only about 10 hours each day.
“I see this as strictly a financial gain for them to make money by creating expensive electricity during the day and using more electricity at night, which is cheaper,” she said. “In today’s world, when we should be conserving energy, this project will generate a net loss of power.”
Energy used in the pumping process may be created by the burning of fossil fuels, further contributing to environmental destruction, Jackson said.
“We urge the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to deny the application for a preliminary permit,” Jackson wrote in the letters.
Jackson said FERC officials confirmed they received her requests.
The Merchant Hydro applications list Adam Rousselle as the company’s contact. Rousselle did not return several messages left for him over a two-week period seeking additional information about the company’s plans.
Though he could not be reached, a May 24 Bloomberg report reveals the company was formed by Rousselle, a former transmission-industry executive, and his son, Adam Rousselle II.
A Philly.com report offered insight into Merchant Hydro’s site selection process, which requires sending topographical information through a computer that searches “for mountainous terrain that had at least 500 feet of steep elevation change, to generate a tremendous force from water released from the upper reservoir.”
“We’re only going to do these if they are economically viable, environmentally viable and socially viable,” the elder Rousselle told Philly.com.
Locally, the Merchant Hydro applications promise that work associated with the projects will not affect cultural resources or endangered species and will cause minimal disturbance to land and water — a stark contrast to environmentalists’ beliefs.
Developers also claim the “clean, renewable energy” created in Blair County would provide stability to either in-state or out-of-state markets.
A new wave
Merchant Hydro’s 17 pending permits, including one for the Shaffer Mountain Pumped Storage Hydro Project in Bedford County, make up only a fraction of permit applications submitted by companies across the country, the FERC website shows.
The recent interest in constructing similar systems could signify a “new wave of potential energy development,” said Hess, who has written about the technology for the PA Environment Digest website.
Hess made sure to stress that Merchant Hydro’s applications are requesting only preliminary permits to study possible sites, meaning construction, if approved, likely will not begin for years.
“This is the very beginning of this whole process,” he said, noting developers will have to deal with an abundance of regulations and obtain numerous permits from state and federal agencies. “Many of these are going to require water withdrawal permits. That, in itself, is an extensive process.”
A similar project was proposed in 2011 by Utah company Symbiotics Energy LLC, which hoped to construct a pump storage power generator in Antis Township, the Mirror reported at that time. That project never came to fruition.