Commentary: Pumped storage electricity can benefit everyone


Increasing river flows to wash young salmon to sea works, however, once water goes down stream, it is gone.  What if we could recycle it in key parts of the Columbia River system allowing us to increase electricity generation as well?  

The Columbia River and its tributaries offer enormous potential for innovation. Power planners are looking for new ways to increase electricity output while providing sufficient water for migrating salmon and steelhead. 

The good news is we are looking at non-traditional ways to accommodate increasing power consumption and replace coal and natural gas generation, which is by far the largest current source of electricity.

One example is taking surplus electricity from the Douglas County Public Utility District’s Wells Dam and run it through an electrolysis process which converts water into hydrogen. Hydrogen is a leading replacement fuel for cars and trucks. Best of all, its emission is water.

Another means is called “pumped storage.”  It works in Virginia and if a project near Goldendale is approved, a pumped storage plant will be constructed producing enough peak electricity for a half day powering a million homes.  It would come on-line by 2028.

The key benefit is water will be recycled.  It will be stored in an artificial lake over 2,000 feet above the Columbia River valley.  A lower lake will be constructed near John Day Dam on the valley floor. Giant pipes fitted with generators and pumps will carry the water between reservoirs. It is a closed system and the only water that escapes is through evaporation.

The project would resemble one constructed in Virginia’s Bath County more than 40 years ago. The Allegheny Mountains site is the world’s largest pumped storage hydro system which produces about half of the amount of electricity generated by the Grand Coulee Dam for up to 12 hours.  

During peak electrical demand, water flows through power generators and drain into a lower reservoir and conversely, during periods of low electricity demand, water is pumped back into the upper reservoir.  

The difference in the price of electricity between low and peak usage makes the system economically feasible. However, the distinct difference is Goldendale’s pumping electricity comes from surplus wind and solar power as opposed to nuclear and coal generation.

A modified version of pumped storage has been used at Grand Coulee Dam for 80 years.  Water from Lake Roosevelt is pumped over the south hill and drops into Banks Lake. It passes through large pipes to turbines and produces electricity.  The water from Banks Lake is the headwaters of the Columbia Basin Project, which irrigates 671,000 acres of farmlands.

What if additional water from Grand Coulee is captured downstream and pumped back up to Lake Roosevelt and reused for power production?  It could be called “Pumped Back Storage” and it could be a way to increase electricity generation, especially during drought periods.

The pumping would occur during times of low power demand, so as not to interfere with peak power needs. Electricity could come from wind and solar generation during non-peak times.

We have seen the consequences of running low on hydropower. In 2000 to 2001, when low stream flows in the Columbia system curtailed hydropower production, this region lost most of its aluminum smelters and the family-wage jobs that went with them as electricity was reallocated to household and commercial use.  

If our country’s leaders continue to pursue the strategy to eliminate greenhouse producing power generation, we will need all the renewable electricity generation we can find.  According to the Energy Information Administration, 33% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the United States were associated with electricity generation in 2018.  

With electrical demand increasing worldwide, we will need all of the CO2-free emission electricity generation we can find.

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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at


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