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Unaweep Canyon
Unaweep Canyon near Grand Junction, Aug. 24, 2022. Xcel Energy wants to build a pumped-storage hydropower project in the canyon. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun / EcoFlight)

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Tuesday accepted Xcel Energy’s application for a preliminary permit to study a pumped-storage hydropower project in Unaweep Canyon.

Xcel’s Public Service Company of Colorado identified the western Colorado canyon as a possible site for the hydropower project, which would move water between two reservoirs to generate emissions-free electricity when wind and solar power fade at night. 

The preliminary permit is the first step in a yearslong process of scoping and planning that will include many public meetings with residents of the canyon, several of whom will lose their homes and properties if the project is developed. The preliminary permit is essentially a placeholder, allowing Xcel to study the pumped-storage hydro project without competition from other energy developers. 

The FERC decision on Tuesday accepts Xcel’s application for a preliminary permit and opens the process to public comment. After collecting comments and perspective from the utility, the federal commission will issue its final decision on the early permit.

“We all knew this day was coming,” Dean Rickman, a Unaweep resident, said in an email to canyon residents early Tuesday. “We fight, we fight, we win.”

The proposed project would include building a 96-foot dam on the mesa above the canyon to create a 5,912 acre-foot reservoir. A 4,900-foot pipeline — with a 22-foot diameter — would drop water to an identically sized reservoir on the canyon floor, created by a 73-foot dam. The tumbling water would pass through turbines that would generate 800 megawatts of energy. Water to fill the reservoirs in the closed-loop, pumped-storage project would be delivered via a 19-mile pipeline from the Gunnison River. A 24-mile line would deliver energy generated by the turbines to Xcel’s Grand Junction substation. 

Xcel Energy is seeking a preliminary permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to study the possibility of a pumped-storage hydropower project in Unaweep Canyon south of Grand Junction. (Xcel Energy / FERC filing)

Unaweep Canyon is a geologic wonder, with creeks that drain the canyon in two directions. East Creek flows into the Gunnison River and West Creek flows into the Dolores River, making it a marvel that has intrigued scientists for many decades. 

It’s also the only place Xcel has found in Colorado where it can build a pumped-storage hydro battery. They are not efficient. Pumped-storage hydro power plants spend more energy pumping water uphill during the day than they generate when the water tumbles downhill. But the Unaweep turbines could produce enough energy to power about 326,000 homes for eight hours during moments of high demand when the electricity from wind and solar fade with daylight. 

The project is a big part of Xcel’s mission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030 and be 100% carbon-free by 2050. The utility, which plans to close its Comanche 3 power plant — the largest remaining coal-fired electric plant in the West by 2035 — provides electricity to 1.5 million customers in Colorado. It plans to spend $1.6 billion on the Unaweep pumped-storage project. The utility’s Cabin Creek pumped-storage hydro project above Georgetown generates 326 megawatts of electricity. 

The preliminary permit does not authorize Xcel to disturb any ground. The utility can now begin vetting a more formal proposal, which could include the company paying landowners who lose their property to the reservoirs, dams, pipelines and transmission lines. That process will likely include the use of eminent domain to acquire land and rights of way.

The utility’s application for a preliminary permit surprised residents of the canyon, who filed many comments with the federal energy commission hoping to block the preliminary permit application. But the federal commission does not consider public comment in the preliminary permit application process. The next steps will include public comment. 

The plan hasn’t set well with residents, especially those whose homes are underwater in Xcel’s early sketches of the project. Environmental groups have expressed concerns with the plan as well. They want details on impacts to homes, wildlife, view corridors and water supplies in the canyon. Xcel has not released detailed plans as it waited for federal approval to move forward.

“I realize the uncertainty and ambiguity is not welcomed,” said Terri Eaton, the director of regulatory administration and compliance at Xcel, during a tense meeting with Unaweep residents in Gateway in May. “But this project is really early and we have a whole lot of work to do to even figure out if this makes sense at all.”

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission in June rejected a request by Xcel Energy to use $15 million in ratepayer money to study the proposal in Unaweep Canyon. 

Commissioner Eric Blank, the chairman of the public utilities commission, said supporting Xcel’s investigation of possible renewable energy projects “creates misaligned incentives” but suggested that the commission could allow up to $5 million in ratepayers support for preliminary planning of renewable energy plans. 

“I think we all understand the problem. Some of these issues take a long lead time to develop and it’s important to the system to get them developed,” Blank said. “So there are potential benefits but they are not without risks.”

Commissioner John Gavan said the Unaweep project “right out of the chute has enormous environmental, financial and technology risks.”

“I would not even been willing to put $5 million in investigatory funding towards this,” Gavan said. “I would limit it to no more than $1 million. I don’t know at this juncture whether this will be viable project and I don’t think it will take an enormous amount of money to figure it out.”

In August, Paul Ashcraft pointed out the window of a Cessna 210 as it soared over Unaweep Canyon. That’s where the peregrines nest, he said over the radio. There’s a beautiful lake right in those aspens. “That’s my home. And that’s where they want to build their dam,” he said. “Everything you can see right here will be underwater.”

Ashcraft was cruising with pilot Bruce Gordon, whose EcoFlight offers aerial tours of threatened landscapes, delivering a bird’s-eye view of policy impacts to politicians, environmental advocates, students and media. 

Ashcraft had never seen his home like that. He built the place more than 30 years ago. 

“A lot of sweat I put into that place,” he said.

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — jason@coloradosun.com Email: jason@coloradosun.com Twitter: @jasonblevins