A graphic of the proposed Bell County storage facility. (Gov. Andy Beshear/Youtube)
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$1.3 billion investment to turn Eastern Kentucky coal mine into hydropower ‘battery’

An Eastern Kentucky coal mining site set to become a giant hydropower battery is getting a significant boost from the federal government. 

Florida-based Rye Development is in line for an $81 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for its Lewis Ridge Pumped Storage Project.

The funding is provided through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

release from the company says it’s one of the first hydropower pumped storage facilities built in more than 30 years and the first ever built on former coal mine land.

The utility-scale battery would be able to provide up to eight hours of on-demand, consistent power.

Hydropower pumped storage facilities work by having two water reservoirs at different elevations. Water is released when demand for electricity is high; it flows downhill through a turbine to generate power. The water is pumped back uphill when demand for power is low.

At a Thursday news conference with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and legislative leaders, Rye Development chief executive officer Paul Jacob said the Bell County project was unlike any “that’s been built around the world.”

“This is a mountain that has on it five different coal seams and countless mines,” Jacob said. “We’re building on the top of that mountain basically a 60-acre pool. That itself is an engineering challenge. But the federal grant that we’ve received is going to help de-risk that and help us accelerate the project.”

Rye Development plans to invest $1.3 billion in the 287-megawatt project, estimated to create about 1,500 construction jobs, 30 “operation” jobs and generate enough energy to power almost 67,000 homes, according to a press release from Beshear’s office. Jacob said the project could take seven to 10 years to construct, with the project’s longevity lasting up to a century.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, called the project regionally “transformational,” saying it would have a huge impact on a region that was previously a “rich energy production area.”

“This is a perfect example: how when people come together in a region, the impact that you can have, no longer just a county, a city — but six, eight, 10, 12 counties. And I have to say this: maybe even a little bit into Tennessee,” Stivers said.

Beshear hailed the project, saying state officials believed the project was the “largest investment ever in Eastern Kentucky.”

“We have a lot of sites like this that could be a part of a clean energy future on top of an abandoned coal mine,” Beshear said.

There are dozens of utility-scale hydropower pumped storage facilities across the country, according to the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Rye Development also has such storage facilities in the Pacific Northwest.

Sen. Johnnie Turner, R-Harlan, who represents Bell County, said the “mountains was coal first” and  “hydro first now.”

“We’re moving on,” Turner said.

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