2021 UPDATE: Proposed wilderness, roadless areas, eligible wild and scenic rivers, a federal wildlife area, and other sensitive areas on federal lands surrounding Isabella Reservoir on the Sequoia National Forest are threatened by the Isabella Pumped Storage Project. As expected, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ignored CalWild’s and other public protest and granted the project proponents a preliminary permit to study the project. FERC argued that the preliminary permit does not allow construction and that protection of sensitive resources during project study is up to a special use permit issued by the Forest Service. CalWild has inquired about the status of this permit but the Forest Service has yet to respond (the agency is short-staffed, lacks adequate funding, and has had its hands full dealing with the pandemic and the massive wildfires of 2020-21).
Additional concerns have been identified since the project was proposed, including a proposed powerline through the South Fork Kern Wildlife Area just upstream of Isabella Reservoir and proposed tunnel/penstock with an Area of Critical Environmental Concern managed by the BLM. The FERC preliminary permit grants the project proponents 24 months to complete its study. CalWild will continue to monitor this project.
ORIGINAL POST: Pumped storage is a way to “store” hydroelectric energy. Water from a lower reservoir is pumped uphill to an upper reservoir when energy is plentiful and cheap, and then released downhill through a powerhouse back to a lower reservoir to generate hydroelectricity when power is in demand. There are a handful of existing pumped storage projects in California, the largest one being Pacific Gas & Electric’s Helms Project which utilizes Courtright and Wishon Reservoirs on the Sierra National Forest to generate electricity. Interest in proposed pumped storage projects has increased in California as a way to “store” renewable solar and wind energy when it isn’t available.
Premium Energy Holdings, LLC based in the southern California community of Walnut has proposed several pumped storage projects in the last two years, including a very controversial project that proposed building reservoirs in the John Muir and White Mountains Wilderness areas on the Inyo National Forest, running conduits beneath sensitive public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and a new receiving reservoir in the Owens River Gorge that would have dammed a section of the river where flows were recently restored to benefit fish under a legal settlement. Fortunately, this project was dropped in response to public opposition, but Premium Energy keeps coming up with new pumped storage project ideas. The Haiwee Project on public lands in the California Desert and southern Sierra is currently under study by Premium Energy. The project includes a proposed new reservoir in the Forest Service’s recommended addition to the South Sierra Wilderness and it would also destroy wilderness-quality BLM parcels. Another potentially controversial project on the San Gabriel River in southern California recently disappeared from the firm’s “Upcoming Project” web page and is assumed to be dead.
Premium Energy is now considering the Isabella Pumped Storage Project on the Sequoia National Forest. The project would utilize the existing Isabella Reservoir 40 miles northeast of Bakersfield as the lower receiving reservoir and proposes three alternative upper reservoirs. One is located on Fay Creek in an addition to the Dome Land Wilderness recommended by the Forest Service in Alternative C of the 2019 draft Sequoia National Forest Plan Revision. A second upper reservoir is considered on Cane Creek, which is located in the Stormy Canyon Wilderness, also recommended by the Forest Service in the 2019 draft Forest Plan. The third alternative upper reservoir would be located on Erskine Creek and would likely back water into the Woolstaff Inventoried Roadless Area (IRA) in the Piute Mountains (IRAs are some of the wildest remaining places in our National Forests). This reservoir could also impact segments of the Middle Fork and South Fork Erskine Creek determined eligible for National Wild and Scenic River protection by the Forest Service in recognition of their free-flowing character and outstanding wildlife, botany, and geology values.
Premium Energy has filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) a request to for a preliminary study permit for the Isabella Pumped Storage Project. Even though most of the project would be located on public lands, it is not known if they Forest Service has even been consulted about the project. Although a study permit sounds innocuous, it allows full access to all public and private lands for possibly surface-disturbing activities such as drilling and gives Premium Energy a “priority right” to apply for a federal license to build the project once the studies are completed.
Although CalWild supports the need to develop renewable energy storage, particularly as California moves towards its goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, we encourage the consideration of new pumped storage projects that utilize some of the existing 1,400 reservoirs in California. Projects that require new reservoir construction on public lands that possess sensitive wildlife, outdoor recreation, and cultural values should be discouraged. CalWild is preparing comments on Premium Energy’s preliminary permit application for the Isabella Pumped Storage Project and has alerted the Forest Service and the outdoor recreation community in the Kernville region about the project.