PUC to opponents of an energy storage project: talk to the feds

Gregory County hydropower plans sparked multiple complaints to state agency

By: - November 7, 2022 4:00 pm
A rendering of the proposed pumped storage project. (MRES and MidAmerican Energy)

A rendering of the proposed pumped storage project. (MRES and MidAmerican Energy)

A deluge of public comments on a proposed energy storage project along the western bluffs of the Missouri River prompted the state Public Utilities Commission to issue a statement on Monday pointing out that it has no authority over the project.

The project would be located 20 miles northeast of Gregory and is dubbed the Gregory County Pumped Storage Project. The partnership between Missouri River Energy Services and MidAmerican Energy Company would see the construction of a massive reservoir and hydro-plant along Lake Francis Case, as well as transmission infrastructure through Charles Mix County.

Public Utilities Commissioner Kristie Fiegen said the department has been inundated with questions regarding the PUC’s authority over the project.

“The PUC does not have jurisdiction on the hydroelectric project because it is on navigable US waters and therefore federal law supersedes state siting law,” Fiegen said.

Meaning, the federal government authorizes the project – not the state.

What is it?

The setup for the controversial project is fairly straightforward. When demand for electricity is low (making electricity cheap), the project would use renewable energy sources like wind and solar to pump water from the river into a 4-square mile, 40-billion-gallon reservoir.

When demand is high, water would flow back down toward the river, where it would run through a new hydro plant, generating up to 2,100 megawatts of electricity – about as much as all the dams in the state.

The system would work like a battery to store excess wind and solar power as water in the upper reservoir and then convert it back into electricity – turning a turbine on the way to the lower reservoir. 

Help from lawmakers?

Concerns about the project are coming from people like David and Fawn Swift. The couple would lose about 320 acres of land to the proposed reservoir.

On Monday, the day the PUC issued its statement, David Swift said he hopes the state takes steps to protect landowners.

“Although Citizens Against Missouri River Pumped Storage Project acknowledges that the state doesn’t have jurisdiction over the project, we still believe the governor and other state officials should be looking out for the interests of the state and standing up for individual landowner rights,” David Swift said.

The PUC itself has not taken a stance on the project. PUC Fiegen said that’s because the law giving the federal government jurisdiction can change.

“If the federal law is changed and it gives states authority over projects like the Gregory Pumped Storage Project, the SDPUC will become involved,” Fiegen said. “Therefore, the PUC has no position on the project.”

(Gregory County Pumped Storage)

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Joshua Haiar
Joshua Haiar

Joshua Haiar is a reporter based in Sioux Falls. Born and raised in Mitchell, he joined the Navy as a public affairs specialist after high school and then earned a degree from the University of South Dakota. Prior to joining South Dakota Searchlight, Joshua worked for five years as a multimedia specialist and journalist with South Dakota Public Broadcasting.