May 12, 2021

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Proposed hydroelectric plant near Ashokan Reservoir shifts location after stiff opposition

5 min read

A proposed plan to build a hydroelectric plant at the Ashokan Reservoir — a major recreation area in Ulster County and supplier of approximately 40 percent of New York City’s drinking water — is now shifting locations after local residents fought the announced plans by an out-of-state energy company.

California-based Premium Energy Holdings, a development division of Power-Tech Engineers, filed a planned green energy project — a power facility called a pump storage hydroelectric plant — with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on February 1st.

The filing came as a surprise to many residents, stakeholders, politicians, and nature enthusiasts in the area who cited a lack of research and forethought into the implications of the plan. Many wondered why FERC allowed the plan to be filed in the first place.

“We had no prior notification. It just suddenly appeared one day, took us all by surprise,” said Jim Sofranko, town supervisor of Olive in Ulster County, and a leading voice in the opposition. “This is an overwhelming project for our town.”

The company is now amending the plan and offering to move the project location about 20 miles southwest after more than 800 statements from community members and stakeholders — the far majority in opposition — were logged on FERC’s online docket associated with the proposal. The Ulser County legislature and New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) also opposed the plan.

“It was an oversight,” said President of Power-Tech Engineers Victor Manuel Rojas when asked why the company had not reached out to the local community before it submitted its proposal. “It was something that maybe we should have avoided; the heartache that we caused and also the time that we wasted having to issue an amendment.”

Premium Energy is proposing to use the existing Neversink and Rondout Reservoirs for the pump storage facility, said Rojas. The company hopes that using existing infrastructure and moving the site to a less populated area might appease the local opposition to this type of project.

Specter of displacing residents rises again

The original plan proposed to build an upper reservoir in one of three possible locations (near Lanesville, Olive, or Phoenicia) and use Ashokan as the lower reservoir. Water would be pumped up to the new reservoir from Ashokan and then would be released during times of high-energy needs back downhill to the reservoir where a turbine would generate electricity. The project would create 800 megawatts of electricity that could be used when solar and wind energy are not available due to weather conditions.

The building of the Ashokan Reservoir in the early 1900s displaced thousands of people from their homes. The buildout of the proposed pump storage hydroelectric plant would have required flooding the area, potentially displacing area residents once again.

The building of the Ashokan Reservoir in the early 1900s displaced thousands of people from their homes. The buildout of the proposed pump storage hydroelectric plant would have required flooding the area, potentially displacing area residents once again.

Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images

In essence, pump-storage hydroelectric facilities act as batteries for green energy programs that can be used when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

But building the new upper reservoir would mean flooding an area to make a new water source and potentially displacing area residents.

When New York City built its Catskill water system at the beginning of the 20th century to provide fresh drinking water to the city, Ashokan Reservoir’s construction displaced thousands of people from their homes and businesses on grounds of eminent domain. A new energy project forcing people from their homes is hard to swallow for a community that has a collective history with such action, Sofranko said.

“It’s not a ‘not in my backyard’ thing — we already have something in our backyard, it’s called Ashokan Reservoir,” he said. “This is a ‘not in my front yard.’”

The project could also potentially contaminate the drinking water that flows to New York City area residents. Ashokan Reservoir provides about 40 percent of the drinking water to more than nine million people in the New York City area and 70 communities north of the City, according to a NYC DEP statement urging FERC to deny the original pump storage plan.

“The proposed hydropower facility would harm water quality at Ashokan Reservoir, interfere with (New York) City’s longstanding efforts to operate and protect the water supply, and disrupt recreation areas that were established more than a century ago,” the 27-page DEP statement said.

Turbidity, or the particulates within a body of water, has been a major issue for the Ashokan Reservoir for years. Adding a pump storage hydroelectric plant would only increase the likelihood of more sediment accumulating and negatively affecting the disinfection process of the water as it is delivered to people in the New York City area.


Not only would the hydroelectric plant contaminate the water quality, but building the infrastructure to service the energy production would put a strain on the protected wilderness of the Catskill region. The Catskill Forest Preserve is home to hiking, camping, fishing, skiing, and all other types of outdoor recreation that could be disrupted by large-scale energy projects.

Any of the proposed sites for the upper reservoir would require buyouts of homes, the possible relocation of State Highway and scenic byway 214, and, most importantly, the fragmentation of a protected forest, said Jeff Senterman, executive director of the Catskill Center.

“Thanks to the unfragmented forests we are able to be an area that’s more resilient to climate change and also host a number of rare and endangered species.”

New York will not be able to meet the state's Climate Act mandate of 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 using in-state energy companies alone. The goal requires using out-of-state companies as well to build large-scale renewable energy projects, and many will be jockeying to land these contracts.

New York will not be able to meet the state’s Climate Act mandate of 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 using in-state energy companies alone. The goal requires using out-of-state companies as well to build large-scale renewable energy projects, and many will be jockeying to land these contracts.

Barbara Alper via Getty Images

Federal review process, climate action council in question

The problem that developed with Premium Energy’s Ashokan Reservoir plan was a result of how FERC approves hydroelectric projects.

The FERC system of filing hydroelectric proposals offers an advantage to “first-movers” almost as if they were filing a patent on the plan to build a facility in a certain location, said Simon Strauss, partner of E/W Capital New York, a financier of green energy infrastructure.

Companies like Premium Energy can file proposals with FERC without having visited project locations or even discussing the implications of large-scale hydroelectric projects with local stakeholders.

Building green energy infrastructure is a necessary step for New York State, said many community members in the area. The problem lies in that the FERC system does not involve local communities until after the initial filing is placed.

NYS is looking to build many green energy projects to reach the state’s Climate Act mandate of 70 percent renewable energy by 2030. New York will not accomplish its renewable target without large-scale, out-of-state companies building new renewable energy projects, said Strauss.

NYS has set up a 22-person climate action council to assess how best to meet the green energy targets. The climate action panel is well-intentioned but has a lot of ground to cover from electric vehicles to energy efficiency to new green energy projects. Between the federal system that FERC oversees and the green energy goals of NYS, there are a lot of challenges appeasing local communities, the environmental concerns of protected wilderness, and the energy companies that are jockeying for the large-scale projects in the state.

“New York is doing the right thing with its climate action council,” Strauss said. “They’re just painfully slow.”



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