Iron-rich Eagle Mountain, in a remote stretch of desert near Joshua Tree National Park, has been home to a Kaiser Steel mining operation, a backdrop for Hollywood films including “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and, more recently, the proposed site of what would have been the largest trash dump in the West.

Now, a Santa Monica company, Eagle Crest Energy, has a $2 billion plan to turn the abandoned mine into a massive energy storage facility that would help manage electricity generated from nearby wind and solar projects.

Eagle Crest’s plan, backed by funding from Santa Monica venture capital firm Upfront Ventures but opposed by some environmental groups and the National Park Service, essentially would be a big solar and wind power storage facility. It would turn two huge mine pits into water reservoirs. When solar and wind supply is plentiful, excess energy from solar and wind farms would be used to pump water from the lower reservoir to the upper one; when solar and wind generation is nonexistent, the water would flow in the other direction, powering up to four hydroelectric turbines and sending electricity to the power grid.

At maximum, 1,300 megawatts of electricity could be returned to the grid, enough to power nearly 1 million homes – about 60 percent of what the San Onofre nuclear power plant generated before it was shut down three years ago.

Backers of the project say it’s essential as the state increasingly turns to alternative power sources – chiefly solar and wind – to meet ambitious greenhouse gas reduction mandates. Because wind and solar are intermittent power sources, state officials and electric utility executives have been scrambling to find ways to store that energy and put it on the grid when needed most.

“Energy storage is a cost-effective way to reduce overgeneration of renewable energy during certain time periods and redeliver that renewable energy during peak demand periods,” said Steve Lowe, Eagle Crest’s chief financial officer. “Pumped storage projects, like Eagle Mountain, have been used for decades around the world for large-scale energy storage.”

Fierce opposition

But environmental groups and the Park Service say the project threatens an aquifer that feeds springs throughout the region, including inside the adjacent national park. In addition, the reservoirs would attract ravens and other natural predators of the threatened desert tortoise.

“The project is simply wrong for this area,” said Seth Shteir, program manager for the California desert field office of the National Parks Conservation Association.


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