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Licensing process continues for proposed Bell County hydropower energy facility

An aerial view of the project site in Bell County. The former coal mine would be repurposed as a pumped energy storage facility.
Ryan C. Hermens/rhermens@herald-leader.com; Courtesy of Rye Development
Lexington Herald-Leader
An aerial view of the project site in Bell County. The former coal mine would be repurposed as a pumped energy storage facility.

A proposal from hydropower company Rye Development could see the site of a former coal mine in Bell County repurposed as a pumped energy storage hydropower facility.

The company says it would invest $1.5 billion to the project and create 1,500 construction jobs. The facility would generate 287 megawatts of energy and would power 67,000 homes.

Sandy Slayton is Vice President of Rye Development. She says they’ve been supporting plans to create a local workforce for when the facility is ready to be built.

“We're partnering with the local schools and community colleges to make sure that as people are coming through the programs, they're ready to fulfill the jobs that we think that we'll have available when they get done,” Slayton said.

The facility is expected to generate power for more than 100 years. Slayton says part of the appeal of pumped energy storage comes from its longevity.

“The first pump storage projects were developed in the early 1900s in Europe, and then came to the US shortly thereafter,” Slayton said. “But the most recent project that's been developed in the US was 30 years ago. So we have never decommissioned a pump storage project in the US. All of them that were ever built are still operating, we just haven't built one in a really long time.”

A study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory also says hydropower storage is the smallest emitter of greenhouse gasses.

The licensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is scheduled to begin next year. Slayton says it’s about a three year process. If the project is approved, construction could take another three to four years.

“This next year, we'll be moving into a really big part of our licensing process,” Slayton said. “We'll be putting together a draft license application to FERC, which involves a number of field studies, some geotechnical work looking to make sure we don't have any species that need to be protected, some water quality studies, some more economic analysis, some more engineering analysis. Then, that'll get submitted to FERC. And then everyone else who wants to review it can provide comments.”

The Department of Energy says 96 pumped storage facilities were under development as of the end of last year.

Shepherd joined WEKU in June 2023 as a staff reporter. He most recently worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting as General Assignment Reporter. In that role, he collected interviews and captured photos in the northern region of West Virginia. Shepherd holds a master’s degree in Digital Marketing Communication and a bachelor’s in music from West Virginia University.
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