The plug has been pulled on a plan to build what its developer has described as the world’s largest pumped storage hydropower project — a $5 billion development proposed for Grant County involving the construction of two 1,000-acre reservoirs connected by a 7-mile-long penstock pipe to generate 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy daily for at least the next 50 years.
The decision to drop development plans for the Ulysses Pumped Storage Project followed a public meeting last Monday hosted by the Grant County Commission. The meeting drew an overflow crowd that, according to those in attendance, overwhelmingly opposed the development.
It marked the third time in as many years that FreedomWorks LLC and its CEO, Tim Williamson, have failed to move forward with a pumped storage development plan in West Virginia.
FreedomWorks LLC, of Harpers Ferry, lost a bid for approval of a similar but smaller project in the Monongahela National Forest, south of Thomas in neighboring Tucker County, in February of last year. The company filed for an application to begin initial planning work for the giant Grant County project last October.
Early last month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted FreedomWorks a permit to begin the planning process, which would have included soil and water tests, preliminary fish and wildlife surveys, investigations to determine whether endangered plants or animals lived in the project’s footprint, and surveys to verify the boundaries of private land holdings affected by the development.
The Ulysses Pumped Storage Project called for construction of a 1,042-acre upper water storage reservoir about 1 mile north of Mount Storm Lake, connected by a 7-mile-long penstock pipe to a 1,139-acre lower reservoir along Knobley Road and the North Fork of Patterson Creek, a short distance east of Greenland Gap. The drop in elevation between the two reservoirs would have provided a 1,640-foot head to drive the project’s eight power-generating turbines.
The project also would have made it possible for wind power operations in the area, such as the nearby NedPower and New Creek wind farms, to send power to the Ulysses PSP when weather accommodated power generation. When winds become slack, the Ulysses project would have had the ability to discharge water from the upper reservoir through the penstock to generate power equivalent to the amount “stored” earlier by wind farms, avoiding power curtailments to customers while providing them with 100 percent renewable energy.
FreedomWorks maintained the project would have created at least 350 jobs during its construction phase, followed by 50 permanent positions with Ulysses, and an additional 40 local spin-off jobs once construction was completed. Based on tax data from a similar project in Oregon, Grant County stood to gain more than $13 million in tax revenue from the project once it was fully operational, according to FreedomWorks, which planned to raise construction funding from investors.
However, the entire project was designed to take shape on private land. According to maps of the project area, the two reservoirs, each capable of holding 37 billion gallons of water, would have submerged dozens of homes, farms, woodlots and poultry houses, affecting more than 50 individual landowners, many of whom only recently learned of what was being planned.
The first public notice for the project appeared in a legal ad published in the Grant County Press last November. The legal notice included a basic description of the scope of work being planned by FreedomWorks, and announced the public had 60 days from the publication date to file their comments about the project with FERC.
“But the ad never said where in Grant County the project would be and it didn’t list the landowners who would be affected,” said Zebulon Kessel, who later found out nearly all of the multigenerational family farm operated by his grandparents would have been covered by water stored in the lower reservoir.
During Monday’s public meeting, a clear majority of participants opposed the project. Objections included the project’s planned diversion of a section of the North Fork of Patterson Creek, a trout stream, to another watershed, and running the risk of having property taken through the process of eminent domain.
Kessel said one affected landowner, an engineer for the nearby Mount Storm Power Plant, questioned the wisdom of placing a 7-mile-long array of four 18-foot diameter, water-bearing penstock pipes across a landscape of limestone karst, known to contain caves and sinkholes. He also said groundwater would eventually percolate through the planned concrete lining to be placed on the bottom of the lower reservoir.
In comments filed with FERC over FreedomWorks’ request for a study permit, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources expressed concern over the effects construction of the upper reservoir would have on creeks downstream of the artificial lake, including Mill Run, which has a naturally reproducing brook trout population.
Miles of other streams, such as the North Fork of Patterson Creek, would be dewatered, or submerged under reservoirs, according to the DNR, raising concerns about loss of fish population and an accompanying loss of fishing opportunities. The DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the project area is likely to contain such endangered species at the rusty-patched bumblebee, the northern long-eared bat, Virginia big-eared bat, and Indiana bat.
“To say the commission has been interested in this project lately is a fair statement,” said Grant County Commissioner Scotty Miley. “But from the time we first started talking about it, both the commission and [FreedomWorks CEO] Tim Williamson wanted to avoid forcing the project on landowners through eminent domain. We wanted Tim Williamson and the landowners to come up with some type of agreement to buy the land, but some of the properties have been in family hands for multiple generations, and have historic cemeteries and Civil War sites. You just can’t put a price tag on those places.”
Miley said the commission wants to attract new industry to Grant County, “but we need something that a good fit for the county, the company and the people who live here.”
Williamson, who gave a presentation on the project and fielded questions during Monday’s meeting, “couldn’t get the landowners on board,” Miley said. At the end of the meeting, county officials said they would not support the project if the landowners living on or near it did not favor it. Williamson told those attending “he would let FERC know that the project was not moving forward here, but he had faith in it and would look for another location,” Miley said.
In addition to the unsuccessful attempt to locate a pumped storage hydroelectric plant on Monongahela National Forest land in Tucker County last February, Williamson and FreedomWorks obtained a FERC planning permit in 2018 for another pumped storage facility in Grant County, this one using existing Mount Storm Lake as an upper reservoir and building one or possibly two lower reservoirs. The permit for that project expired last November.