Originally Published: January 18, 2012 10:05 p.m.
The Chino Grande Ranch in the Big Chino Valley has a rare storied history in Yavapai County water politics, and now it has a new chapter.
The ranch owners are contemplating the construction of Arizona's first closed-loop hydroelectric power facility, which would utilize Big Chino groundwater. They said they are embarking on a detailed $5 million feasibility study that could take three years to complete.
Initially, the project would need about 17,500 acre-feet of groundwater to fill the constructed reservoirs.
The proponents estimate the facility could produce as much as 2,000 megawatts of electricity - enough to power more than 350,000 homes.
A hydroelectric facility is about the only way to store large amounts of electricity for use in peak demands, ranch co-owner Rodney Thomas said.
"What's really the missing link in renewable energy is storage," he said.
Among the project consultants is attorney Kris Mayes, who served seven years on the Arizona Corporation Commission before she ran out of time under the state's term limit law in 2010. Mayes grew up in Prescott.
"This could help make Northern Arizona a real leader in renewable energy by supporting projects throughout the region," Mayes said. "What attracted me to this enterprise was the ability to put renewable energy on that ranch instead of houses. Using it for clean energy is the highest and best use of the land."
This kind of facility could have prevented the huge blackout in southern California in September 2011 that left 4 million people without electricity, Mayes said.
"We have a surprisingly fragile electricity grid in the Western U.S.," Mayes said.
The remote ranch, located about five miles southeast of Seligman at Interstate 40, first made local headlines back in 2002 when Ranch Communities of America planned a huge subdivision. The developers backed out in the face of public opposition. At that time it was called the CV/CF Ranch.
Then the City of Prescott signed an option in 2004 to buy the ranch and pump groundwater south about 40 miles. But court wrangling over water rights between the current and previous owner scared the city away. The city ended up buying a much smaller neighboring ranch the same year.
Chino Grande LLC bought the CV/CF Ranch in 2006. In March 2011, the owners closed the ranch to public hunting, prompting the Arizona Game and Fish Commission to cancel the prized pronghorn antelope hunt on the entire 19B Game Management Unit. It was the first time in the commission's history that it canceled a hunt because of a public access closure, Commission Chair Robert Woodhouse said.
Thomas said this week that the ranch owners are negotiating with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and are considering allowing hunting again.
Back in March, co-owner Larry Geare said they planned a solar electricity farm on the ranch.
Thomas says the owners envision a renewable energy farm that could include solar and wind power facilities someday. They already have been measuring wind speeds and solar intensity on the ranch.
Geare, Thomas and their partners have formed the Longview Energy Exchange LLC to study the feasibility of what they are calling the Longview Energy Exchange Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Project. They filed for a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) preliminary permit this month to conduct the analysis, and notified The Daily Courier.
The analysis will look at everything from environmental to economic impacts of the project, including road impacts alongside job needs. It also will help figure out the construction cost, Thomas said. The Department of Energy estimates closed-loop hydroelectric facilities that produce 2,000 megawatts could cost as much as $4 billion.
"There will be ample opportunity for public comment," Thomas added.
The initial FERC application says the project would require the construction of two 500 kV transmission lines spanning a combined 65 miles to the north and southwest.
Thomas said the project organizers would prefer to avoid crossing the Prescott National Forest or the portion of the Yavapai Ranch that is supposed to become part of the Prescott Forest. The Yavapai Ranch owners now are proposing a wind farm on part of the exchange lands. Thomas said he talked only briefly with the same wind energy company, NextEra.
The Chino Grande Ranch is a checkerboard of sections of private and state trust lands, with 28,500 acres in private hands. So the State Land Department would be among a list of government agencies that would have to approve the project if it goes forward.
"They're open to doing business deals that are good for the state, and I'm hoping this will be one of them," Thomas said.
The closed-loop concept would pump water 1,400 feet up a hill to two reservoirs for storage, then pump water back down through a turbine to a third larger reservoir to produce spot energy on demand. Water would loop up and down through tunnels. The reservoirs would cover about 210 acres.
The project plans to initially pump 17,500 acre-feet of Big Chino groundwater into the reservoirs - more than twice as much as Prescott and PV plan to pump annually. Then the project would pump enough annually to make up for evaporation and reservoir seepage.
Thomas said the feasibility study will determine how much groundwater the facility would need each year.
Groundwater is a sensitive subject in the Big Chino.
Plans by Prescott, Prescott Valley and Chino Valley to supplement their municipal water supplies with groundwater from the Big Chino Aquifer have drawn concerns from environmental groups and downstream users, including Verde Valley officials.
Scientists generally agree that the Big Chino supplies at least 80 percent of the baseflow of the Upper Verde River, which is home to endangered species and was branded one of the country's most endangered rivers by the environmental group American Rivers in 2006.
Thomas said he is unsure whether the company's hydrologic studies have analyzed the project's potential impact on the river yet, and attempts to speak with the project hydrologist were unsuccessful.
"We're fully aware (the project) has a lot of environmental considerations," Thomas said. "We wouldn't propose a project we didn't think was in the best interest of Yavapai County.