Large Hydroelectric Dam Proposal Draws Concern In Bishop

May 31, 2019

A new hydroelectric dam project could be built within the next few years near Bishop. While many see it as a form of clean energy, some locals are concerned about the effects it could have on the wilderness area. Kurtis Alexander is an environmental reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. KUNR's Bree Zender spoke with him about his reporting.

ZENDER: So, tell me about this dam project near Bishop.

ALEXANDER: Well, Premium Energy, which is a Los Angeles County-based consultant, is looking to build a pumped hydrostorage project in the Bishop area of the Owens Valley. This is essentially a hydroelectric facility that's going to be used to store power. It's kind of like a giant battery, and what they want to do is put a couple of dams on one of two waterways to the west of Bishop and pump water from the creek up thousands of feet to larger reservoirs.

ZENDER: Where is this electricity going to be used? Is it going to be used primarily in Southern California?

ALEXANDER: It's not clear at this point where the power is going to be used. The application for the project states that it could be used by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power or Southern [California] Edison Company. Both of those utilities have transmission lines in the area, so what the applicant wants to do is to try to tap into these electricity lines and get one of these two utilities to buy the power. 

ZENDER: And I know there are some concerns from the area residents. Can you tell me about those concerns?

ALEXANDER: There are neighbors downstream of the proposed dam that just don't want to have a dam in their backyard for fear that there could be problems with it. It could leak or have even bigger problems. [It could] drown their neighborhoods. There's environmentalists as well as the U.S. Forest Service that [have] weighed in on the proposal, saying that they're concerned about basically plugging a river. When a river is plugged, you're going to have problems with fish flows. There's a lot of mountain biking back there. There's a lot of wilderness camping. It just would basically change the nature of this area from a wilderness to more of an industrial center.

ZENDER: Areas around Southern California, specifically [Los Angeles] County, tend to extract a lot of resources from [the Owens Valley], including water and energy. Do you think that there's some resistance just because it's from Southern California?

ALEXANDER: Yeah, I think you're right. I think you're on to something. The Owens Valley hasn't always had a great relationship with Southern California, and that dates back 100 [or] 150 years when Los Angeles acquired most of the water rights to the Owens Valley. [They] dried up a lot of the water ways as they took the water to Southern California, so I do think that that's in the back of their minds. If they're not resentful, they're certainly keeping an eye on any new attempts to divert water for either water supplies or power for Southern California. 

ZENDER: Are there any folks who are very, you know, 'gung-ho' about this project in the area?

ALEXANDER: I don't know about too many folks in the area who are gung ho about the project, but I have spoken with people in the energy industry and some economists who are supportive of pumped hydro storage projects.  I think one of the take-away messages here is how much of a demand there is for these types of projects. Pumped hydro-storage, as we've talked about earlier, is a good way to store power.

Right now, there's a lot of surplus renewable energy on the grid. There's a lot of wind and solar power. And, obviously, these sources of electricity are sporadic. They don't produce all the time, so rather than having power companies run off of fossil fuel-driven power, dirtier power, when the renewable sources aren't producing, they can use these pumped hydro projects to generate cleaner electricity during those down times.

ZENDER: Yeah, so it's considered this 'green energy' but it could be affecting some natural landscapes.

ALEXANDER: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. It's green energy. But putting in dams isn't necessarily a 'green' venture, and the state has sort of wrestled with this problem. They've tried to increase the amount of renewable energy. Right now, the state has a goal of getting 60% of its power from renewable sources by 2030, and hydroelectricity is not counted toward that goal because of its environmental consequences.