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

Historic photo of the Mather iron mine in Negaunee, where Michigan Technological University researchers are working with the city to design an underground hydro pump storage facility — tapping the region’s mining heritage in hopes of reducing high energy costs. (Photo courtesy of “The Mather Mine,” published by the Marquette County Historical Society)

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.

An underground conveyor belt at the Mather Mine. (Photo courtesy of Central Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan University Archives, Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company collection)

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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Wed, 04/03/2019 - 8:44am

How about bringing back the Taylor air compressor technology? That is a proven technology that actually work. I am referring to the one that was used by the Victoria mine in ontonagon co....

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 9:10pm

Kerry, we talked about that tech! The ideas we are discussing now will be more widely applicable, I think. But like most future energy systems, the key will always be to design for the local situation in order to take advantage of the which each community's resources offers.

Sun, 04/07/2019 - 3:54am

This year is a great ideal but remember what killed did Taylor air compressor big interest in cold and electricity there's no way the big utilities are going to let this technology be applied without putting up a big fight and they have the Buck's to back it. It like when we were encouraged to put up solar electricity panels it was promised that we could sell our surplus electricity but two big politicians from downstate bags by natural gas money got the law passed that the utilities only have to buy back a certain percentage of your surplus electricity they will happily take your surplus electricity but if you need it you must buy it back at retail rates that can killed the solar energy in the upper peninsula. I believe this idea who has great potential as a used source of energy but if the government ever gets hold of it or big utilities it will be dead in the water so to speak. There are many alternate energy generating sources but if there's someone further up the food chain that has the money they will suppress it in order to promote their form of energy. As I understand it the Victoria only went to the Taylor air compressor due to the fact that location of the mine topographically speaking would not allow a railroad to be put in due to the grade An the number of bridges that would have to been constructed to cross ontonagon river n two very deep gorge, s, and the fact that the river got very low in the summertime and could not bring coal to fuel the steam boiler year around n ship copper out, it was basically a matter of necessity either they went with the tailor technology or they would have had to add on quite a number of men to cut wood to fuel the steam boilers. It was greatly a matter of economics. Taylor offer his air compressor to the C/ H conglomerate but they turned him down flat. His technology was greatly used in the lumber Mills of Canada. This idea will fly with flying colors if you keep big government out of it and not allow any shares of stock to be bought up by big utilities that will suppress the technology..

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 9:04am

Most of these copper mines in Michigan's Upper peninsula are not that deep in order to maintain enough heat for the exception of the C/H mines in Calumet, the red jacket shaft comes to mine 4900 feet ,it was around 92.f before it was connected by two other tunnels #4 Calumet n south hecla #12 those two tunnels lowered the temperature down to around 86 degrees year-round not enough for this type of project,

Jerry D
Sun, 12/15/2019 - 6:22pm

I don't understand your rationalization against geothermal use of the tremendous heat sink that must be in mine shafts. Many, many, many houses use extremely efficient heat pumps to heat and cool. Why wouldn't Quincy Mine, say be an excellent source of heating and cooling for Hancock, Houghton, Ripley?

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 9:08pm

Michigan Tech students and faculty are working with our communities to develop geothermal heating/cooling options. My understanding is that the application of different tech in this area is hamstrung by our high electric rates, since the cost of pumping water ends up roughly equalling the cost of gas heat. But here are some links to studies and publications on the topic:

Gary Lea
Wed, 04/03/2019 - 10:31am

As I read this article, I thought it would reference the Rocky Mountain Institute's "Sunshine for Mines" strategies, which includes electricity generation from shaft airflow; falling water also displaces air. Win - win!

Robert Honeyman
Wed, 04/03/2019 - 10:50am

This seems like a perfect candidate for DOE funding.

Oh wait. No oil involved.


Wed, 04/03/2019 - 11:35am

This seems like kind of a bad idea considering that you're essentially pumping out toxic mine water and storing it on surface.

Wed, 04/03/2019 - 4:27pm

First of all, not all water in abandoned mines is toxic. Second, my understanding is it wouldn't be stored on the surface, but at a a higher level in the mine (some are thousands of feet deep).

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 9:28pm

As LH wrote, this study is trying to design an inclosed system, where the pumped water would be stored in underground reservoirs. Ideally, there will be no change to the surface flows of local water. LH was also correct that most mine water in the Upper Peninsula is generally not contaminated like mines in other regions of the country, like coal mines that suffer from acid mine drainage. In the copper and iron regions of Michigan's UP, it is the stamp mill tailings that cause both physical and chemical water contamination. While some iron mines had sulfide ores that produce acid runoff, speaking very generally, only after the rocks have been pounded up to sand or slime do they produce enough chemical reactions to cause problems. Again speaking very generally, most water contamination comes from fields of stamp sand tailings and the mill sites, not the old mine locations themselves. There may be other conditions that cause problems for equipment, like water with lots of sediment, but a community considering a project like this will need to consider the conditions in its particular mine(s). Setting all that aside, if an abandoned mine is draining contaminated water into the local ecosystem, that is already the case. This type of energy storage system would probably not add to the flow of contaminants. So a community could ask itself, do we want to have an abandoned mine draining acid water into our local waterways, or do we want to have an abandoned mine with a power storage system installed and operating, generating revenues that we can then use to install a water treatment system to prevent the ongoing chemical releases. It may be that communities with contaminated mine drainage could instal utility-scale energy storage systems to establish the income stream to clean up contaminated drainages. Who knows where these studies will lead?

Michael Stavy
Wed, 04/03/2019 - 12:55pm

Energy storage is measured in MWh; while the power pushing the energy into (out of) storage is measured in MW.
Check my energy storage papers at my website, www.michaelstavy.com

Sun, 04/07/2019 - 10:05am

Thanks for news about this potentially beneficial technology.
Detroit has caverns of space left from salt mining. Is there any possible way that space could be used to provide energy storage?

Thu, 04/11/2019 - 1:55pm

Has anyone Took in consideration as what could happen if the water levels in these mines are Disturbed? Bear in mine most of these mine,s are very unstable due to the fact when they were closed down the tribute miner,s robbed out all the supporting pillows for all the copper they could find, and I feel that many of these mines are very unstable below the established waterline n could be a catastrophe in the making if they are Disturbed. Example the Minesota dam at Rockland, is the results of the tribute miners Robbing the underground pillows for the copper contents which led to the collapse and water from the old national mine flooded it instantly. I would err on the side of immense amount of caution before considering any changes of the water tables in the mines,,

Joel Casler
Sun, 07/07/2019 - 3:40pm

The idea is technologically possible with tested technology and processes. Although the idea seems to be rather expensive. And I wonder if it would be economically feasible to produce Less energy than it would use to pump the water up from the holding areas within the mines. I wish them well. But I would certainly like to see a report of the finished production figures, including Generation. Conjecture just doesn't seem to have much substance here.