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Battery On The Berm: The Ludington Pumped Storage Facility

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You have probably driven right by the Ludington Pump Storage Facility, you just didn’t know it.

Traveling along US-31 in southern Mason County it just looks like a landfill. But in fact it is a massive man-made reservoir, fueling one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the world co-owned by the two largest energy companies in the state, DTE and Consumers.

“Allows us to supply power to about 1.7 million customers at full capacity,” says Brian Zatloukal, Operations and Maintenance Manager for Consumers Energy’s Pumped Storage, Wind and Solar Assets.

For scale, that’s essentially the entire greater Grand Rapids area, producing up to 2,200 megawatts.

“To put into perspective, a single megawatt is capable of powering your typical Meijer store,” says Zatloukal.

The facility is essentially one of the world’s largest batteries. Consumers Energy gets its base load of energy from its coal and gas plants across the state. When the energy demands peak above that base load, they need places like the Ludington Pumped Storage Facility to pick up the slack. In just a matter of minutes, they can open up the gates, get the water flowing through the turbines and pick up that amount. When the demand is low, like at night, they will start pumping water back in to the reservoir, getting ready for that next call.

Nuclear plants are only licensed to operate at one level, maximum power,” says Zatloukal, “So it doesn’t make sense to build out a power grid just to use nuclear or just coal because they don’t have that flexibility to move with just that load demand on the system.”

This plant was built 50 years ago. It took four years, 2,500 workers and a budget of $327 million, or $1.87 billion in today’s money. These workers were building the biggest power plant of its kind in the world at the time, in a spot perfectly suited for it.

“Right at the shore of Lake Michigan, you have the bluffs adjacent to the north and south right through here,” says Zatloukal, “That really gave us the elevation difference between Lake Michigan and our reservoir to effectively generate that power.”

The six turbines can be used to generate power or be reversed to pump water up into the reservoir, creating 15 million kilowatt hours of stored energy to be used whenever needed.

“We can go from offline to fully powered on a unit in about 6 minutes,” says Zatloukal, “The only thing faster is solar and battery.”

On a daily basis the plant is used to fill in gaps but at times it has been crucial to to surviving potential disaster as the world’s largest pair of jumper cables.

“Should the grid go dark, like it did in August of 2003, you need power to start power plants,” says Zatloukal, “This pumped storage plant provides that power to the grid to allow other sources of generation to restart.”

In the long term, pumped storage facilities will play a key role, the investment is massive but the pay off is undeniable.

“We are about 77% efficient so for every 10 megawatts we use to pump the water up we can generate about 7.7 megawatts back,” Zatloukal, “A coal plant is maybe 40% at best and a gas turbine available today is 50-52%.”

Energy needs are changing, as are the sources. coal and gas are being replaced by wind and solar. But thanks to an $800 million renovation being completed soon, the Ludington Pumped Storage Facility will be here, powering along quietly for at least the next 50 years.

“The fuel mix is really changing. Consumers Energy is moving away from fossil fuels, in particular in coal plants we have plans to close down by 2040,” says, Zatloukal, “We’re back filling with lots of renewables so even while the mix has changed the pump storage has really remained consistent throughout the years and will continue to be true going forward.”

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