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Michigan’s UP is full of closed mines. Technology may give them new life

Michigan Technological University is studying whether communities could transform abandoned mines into valuable energy storage.

University researchers are partnering with the Marquette County city of Negaunee, population 4,500, on a pilot project that could help mining communities turn liabilities into assets. The prospect is particularly intriguing in the Upper Peninsula, home to hundreds of abandoned metal mines and cripplingly high electricity rates.

“What really excites me is the possibility of reusing an old industrial site that no longer has any use at all — using that as energy stabilization for the entire Upper Peninsula,” Negaunee City Planner David Nelson told Bridge Magazine.

“It would all be contained underground, which makes the surface still reusable for development in the future,” added Nelson, who said the city is slowly converting some of its sprawling former mining properties to parks.

Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a two-year pilot project will focus on the Mather B iron mine, which closed in 1979 and whose former administrative offices are now a high school.

The idea is to novelly use the contours of underground mines to harness time-tested technology: pumped hydro storage. Surplus power would pump groundwater, which tends to flood mines when they are abandoned, up an incline. When energy demands are higher, the water would drop down the mine shafts through turbines that churn out electricity.

Professors and students will investigate whether an underground pumped hydro storage facility is technologically, environmentally and economically feasible. They will design such a facility and will translate their findings for policymakers and developers.

If all goes as planned, the goal is to develop a nationwide map of old mines that might be suitable for storing energy, said Roman Sidortsov, an associate professor of energy policy at Michigan Tech.

Game changer?

In the mid 1990s, a Michigan Tech team cataloged more than 2,000 shafts from 800 mines in Marquette County and seven other western UP counties.

The amount of potentially viable sites for energy storage likely is somewhere between those numbers, said Timothy Scarlett, an associate professor of archaeology and anthropology at Tech who is involved in the project.

Hundreds of thousands more mines exist across the country. Preliminary research suggests the Negaunee mine alone could store enough electricity to power Negaunee and surrounding cities for several hours.

“If it goes national, given what we know about the size, it could be a game changer,” Sidortsov said, adding the caveat that the research is just beginning.

Stored energy for future use is a highly valuable resource for stabilizing the electric grid. Experts see advances in the field as a key piece of goals to slash carbon dioxide emissions in the coming decades by accommodating more intermittent renewable power added to the grid.

Now, some power plants might idle for long periods, particularly when folks turn off their lights at night and need less power. Some plants, including inefficient, higher-polluting plants called “peakers,” are used only on the hottest or coldest days when electricity demands are highest. Meanwhile, power generation from wind turbines and solar panels fluctuates day to day.

Energy storage can come in various forms, such as lithium ion batteries or those made of nickel cadmium or sodium sulfur. Renewable energy experts have heralded rapid advances in technology that have made batteries less expensive, but they’re still too pricey for wide-scale deployment.

The Michigan Tech researchers are contemplating another type of energy storage in the UP: pumped water. It’s been used worldwide and on a far larger scale than other types of batteries.

“Battery storage cannot match pumped hydro yet in terms of scale,” Jeremy Twitchell, an energy research analyst at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said last week at an energy storage conference hosted by Michigan agencies.

The best known example of pumped hydro storage in Michigan is Consumers Energy’s Ludington Pumped Storage Plant along Lake Michigan, which can generate up to 1,900 megawatts of power to be quickly dispatched when most needed.

The technology involves pumping water from a low elevation during times of low electricity demand on the grid and storing it in a high-elevation pond, tank or behind a dam. When electricity demand is high, water can flow back down the incline and through turbines.

New use for old technology

Experts have long seen large-scale hydro storage as a tapped-out market in Michigan and beyond,  largely because the best locations had already been used, and the projects — which can endanger fish and other wildlife, if not painstakingly addressed — are nearly impossible to permit.

Unlike existing pumped hydro facilities, Michigan Tech researchers envision keeping the system completely underground, inside the former mines. That could minimize environmental impacts, ease permitting and still allow for redevelopment atop former mining sites.

“We do not need to come up with something revolutionary or different, because our confidence is that the existing technology will work,” said Sidortsov.

The Mather Mine is in a prime spot because it’s split between a flooded lower level and a dry upper level where equipment could sit and water could be stored, said Scarlett, the Tech archeology professor. Many other mines offer similar contours.

Theoretically, compressed air storage even be possible in a completely flooded mine, Scarlett added.

Sidortsov said the storage idea first popped into his head two years ago while he was jogging up the historic Quincy copper mine in Houghton County and noticed water rushing down the slope.

“What’s up with this elevation, and what can be done with this elevation?” he recalled thinking.

Sidortsov soon presented that spark of an idea to Scarlett, who enthusiastically teamed on a project that recognizes the cultural importance of mines across the UP.

“We’re in this sort of natural laboratory for mining history here in Copper Country,” Scarlett said. “The physical remains are really powerful insights into the daily life of these communities.”

The Tech researchers said they would hold community meetings throughout the project, to make sure residents could offer input — and understand the work. Learning about the Negaunee’s history helped the Tech team narrow its focus to Mather mine, rather than disturbing the remnants of another mine where an accident long ago left miners entombed, Scarlett said.

Working with the community from the get-go could help developers avoid headaches — and costs — that could come from community resistance.

Another perk of using old mines: They’re generally already hooked up to power lines. Such power lines could require upgrades once a storage facility would be ready to go online, but that would be far less expensive than building new hookups.

If it works, the researchers hope energy storage could bring more economic development to UP communities besieged by high power prices.

Negaunee, served by regional power provider WPPI energy, doesn’t have the highest prices in the peninsula. But the UP’s biggest electric company — Upper Peninsula Power Company, which serves 54,000 residents in 10 counties — has some of the highest rates in the country, second only to Hawaii.

“If you are offering inexpensive heating and cooling to businesses and facilities….it kind of changes the landscape there, where it attracts potential employers,” all while commemorating the region’s mining heritage, Scarlett said.

“That total value package is remarkable to people up here.”

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