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Abandoned Joshua Tree Mine Set to Become Energy Storage Facility Using Billions of Gallons of Water

A former steel mine just outside of Joshua Tree National Park has for the past few years been a hotly contested piece of real estate. In one corner, varied business interests that had plans to use it for everything from a trash dump to a reopened mining facility, and in the other corner, conservationists who simply wanted the dormant land to be returned to Joshua Tree from whence it came. It looks like we have a winner, and it's Eagle Crest Energy, which plans to build a $2-billion energy storage facility, complete with it's own massive water reservoirs, over the objections of the National Park Service, reports the LA Business Journal.

It works like this: solar energy would be generated by existing utility companies like Southern California Edison, but if more energy is created than Edison can use on it's grid, it would be able to transfer the electricity to the Eagle Crest storage facility, where it'd be used to pump water from a lower reservoir to one higher above. Then, when the sun goes down and Edison needs that energy again, the water from the upper reservoir would run through turbines into the lower reservoir, creating hydroelectric power that Edison could put back on it's grid. The energy facility would be used by California utility companies to help achieve the state-mandated goal of getting 33 percent of electricity from renewable resources by the year 2020.

The one sticking point: it takes 33,000 acre feet of water to fill the reservoirs. Oh, you don't speak energy company misleading water measurement jargon? Well, that amounts to 9 BILLION GALLONS of water. That's enough water to supply 40,000 homes for an entire year.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted the project a license last year, and the National Parks Service has now petitioned them to reconsider. Conservationists at Joshua Tree are concerned because that water is all coming from the aquifer under the Chuckwalla Valley. In an already parched region of the state, this could have devastating effects on wildlife in the park. David Smith, superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park, told the Desert Sun "It has the potential for wiping out bighorn sheep populations from all those areas." Additionally there is concern that the above-ground reservoirs could attract predators to the area that would feed on endangered animals.

The disputed land has been a thorn in Joshua Tree's side for some time. In 1950, Congress passed a law reducing the size of Joshua Tree, giving the land to Kaiser to mine. Conservationists in the area have been on pins and needles about the future of the former mine ever since it closed in 1982. Plans for the energy storage facility have actually been floating around for decades and the only thing keeping it from being built was the mining company's desire to turn the land into a dump. Plans to sell the land to the Los Angeles Sanitation Department were held up in the courts for years and eventually dropped in 2013. After two years of negotiations, Kaiser finally agreed to sell the land to Eagle Crest Energy in July.

Some residents think that Kaiser should have given the land back to Joshua Tree when it ceased being an active mine 30 years ago. "They don't want to give up that land. They want to sell it, divvy up the money and go have a nice retirement the rest of their lives," resident Donna Charpied told the Desert Sun last year. "That lands needs to go back to where it was intended by Congress."

Right now, the only major hurdle left for Eagle Crest Energy is gaining approval from the Federal Bureau of Land Management to connect 16 miles of transmission lines to a Southern California Edison substation. If it can deflect further legal obstacles, construction should begin in 2018 and reach completion in 2022. —Jeff Wattenhofer
Mine Unearthed as Power Facility [LA Business Journal]
In shadow of Joshua Tree, debating an old mine's future [Desert Sun]
Eagle Mountain hydropower plant takes big step forward [Desert Sun]