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New Research Shows Old Mines Hold the Power to Energize Communities – Michigan Technological University


Researchers say it’s time to write a new chapter in mining history — a story that
honors heritage, mitigates hazards and creates stable power grids that benefit host
communities.

Pumped hydroelectric storage isn’t new. Putting closed-loop systems in old mines is.
A new comprehensive initiative finds the power in heritage, slaying two grand challenges
with a single elegant solution.

Researchers in Michigan Technological University’s Keweenaw Energy Transition Lab answer the urgent need for reliable energy grids with PUSH, or pumped underground
storage hydro, a global-first closed-loop underground energy storage system that other
countries are exploring to help solve the problems of abandoned mines and reliance
on fossil energy. 

This Q&A features two authors of the recently released technical report, “PUSHing for Storage, A Case for Repurposing Decommissioned Mines for Pumped Underground
Storage Hydro
,” who share the scope and promise of transforming decommissioned metallic mines into
reliable power storage and generation centers. Principal investigator Roman Sidortsov, an associate professor of energy policy in Michigan Tech’s Department of Social Sciences and senior fellow for energy justice and transitions at the University of Sussex,
and Timothy Scarlett, an associate professor of archaeology and anthropology with expertise in industrial heritage and archaeology, say the potential is profound, dovetailing with the nation’s increased focus on
infrastructure and the world’s urgent quest for reliable and affordable energy.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine launched in early 2022 brings the energy picture into
even sharper focus, said Sidortsov — especially the world’s dependence on fossil fuels
delivered at the whims of undependable suppliers.

“This future is only possible with sufficient electricity storage, which PUSH can
help to provide. Yet the lessons do not end there,” he said. “This war exposed the
inadequacy of many energy conceptions that have been dominant since the 1970s. How
to measure energy security, resilience and value of energy systems in the national
and local context — all these questions need to be rethought. Let’s take energy security,
for example, which is typically defined by the availability and affordability of an
energy commodity like oil or natural gas. Yet people do not necessarily need oil or
natural gas — what they need is to warm or cool their houses, get from home to work
and charge their gadgets.” Or to paraphrase renowned energy policy thought leader
Amory Lovins, people don’t want kilowatt-hours — they want hot showers and cold beer.

Sidortsov said the system he and his team studied can be designed to sell the stored
electricity on a market while also meeting the host community’s needs, creating a
resilient, stable energy source.

“Moving away from the fossil fuel-powered world where the most questionable political
regimes play a central role and toward a more distributed, clean and mostly electricity-powered
future is one of the main lessons of this senseless and bloody war.”Roman Sidortsov, PUSH team leader, energy policy expert

Researchers identified roughly a thousand PUSH-suitable sites in 15 states, then further
grouped them based on factors including proximity to existing solar and wind power
generation facilities, solar and wind resources, major load centers, and transmission
and distribution infrastructure. Although the researchers used the single most comprehensive
mines database available, it lacked data for many states with a history of mining.
This study is just a start, they say; there are more mines to identify, more electricity
markets to analyze and more legal and social factors to evaluate. 

Sidortsov quotes Swedish colleagues from Mine Storage who say, “‘The world is like Swiss cheese. It’s full of mines.’ We can solve this
problem with something we already have. We’re talking about energy security at multiple
levels.”

Expanding the initiative could hold promise for hundreds of other U.S. and global
communities. 


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Energy security to wastewater treatment, researchers answer your questions about pumped
underground storage hydropower and how it can revitalize post-mining communities economically
and culturally.

Get the PUSH Report

Based on the study “Enhancing electrical grid and community resilience through repurposing
decommissioned mines into underground pumped storage facilities” and funded by the
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the “PUSHing for Storage” report was issued in April 2022. In addition to Sidortsov
and Scarlett, principal authors include Shardul Tiwari, Ana Dyreson and David Watkins.

The list of contributing authors and others who worked on the initiative includes
several Michigan Tech faculty along with undergraduate and graduate students, along
with a Northern Michigan University undergrad.

Download and share the report.

PUSH can be utilized in conjunction with any kind of energy resource. But it’s particularly
enticing in the case of renewable energy. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind
doesn’t always blow. Pumped hydro, which involves generating and storing energy using water reservoirs, has long been
identified as a solution. When energy is plentiful, water is pumped from a lower level
to a higher, storing its potential energy. When energy is in demand, the water is
released to flow back down to the lower level, turning electricity-generating turbines
as it flows. 

Pumped Underground Storage Hydropower diagram showing surface upper reservoir and underground upper reservoir configurations with solar panels and trees on the surface along with mine structure remnants and underground reservoirs, turbines, and shafts.

Q: Pumped hydro storage is a mature technology. What’s different about your findings
from this study?

RS: The main difference is in the interdisciplinary approach that the team used. Most
if not all previous studies known to us were designed by engineers. This study was
designed by a team that had engineers in it. The rationale behind the study was not
to determine the technical feasibility of PUSH, but to take a holistic look at whether
this technological application was a good idea on social, economic, environmental,
cultural and legal grounds. 

We knew of previous studies that confirmed there were no fundamental technical barriers
for developing PUSH. Ultimately, we wanted to know what PUSH could do for decarbonizing
the electrical grid and providing economic development opportunities for post-mining
communities, as well as the barriers and opportunities for making it happen.

TS: The technology is mature in the sense that humans have centuries of experience
with hydropower and decades using it for pumped storage. Mining and drilling are also mature technologies
backed by centuries of experience. Combining them together in this way — that is new.
People have thought about it, but nobody has yet tried it. Projects are in development
around the world — Sweden and Finland, Germany, Australia and South Africa.

Q: You examined the challenges of energy storage from a broad perspective rather than
specifically from the purview of an energy company. How does that change the impact
for communities?

RS: This is not a conventional approach to assessing an energy project. Normally,
a developer shows up in a community and informs it that something is going to get
built. The next step is to work with the community on the acceptance of the project.
There are normally some concessions and even benefit sharing, but all of it has an
expiration date determined by the life of the project. In some cases, this model works
and even benefits both the community and company. However, when the company is gone,
so are the benefits. Because many potential PUSH sites are owned by municipalities,
we saw this as an opportunity for a different approach, where a community can play
a significant role in getting what it wants and needs, long-term, out of a PUSH project.

TS: We’ve thought about this situation from different perspectives, but my favorite
is when we flip traditional thinking. Abandoned mines are nearly always considered
liabilities for communities, associated with environmental damage, economic depression,
demographic decline and cultural malaise. Instead, we ask, what if we think about
these abandoned mines as untapped assets? Think of them as embodied carbon like other
existing infrastructure? Ask communities to identify what is important to their members
about these places, and consider what part of the mining heritage should be treated
with care? What if we can co-design plans that flip liabilities into assets via design? 

Q: While the report includes broad, scalable implications, the study extrapolates
out from your work with one mine in one community: the Mather B Mine in Negaunee.
Why that mine? What kind of feedback did you get from the Negaunee community?

RS: The Upper Peninsula has some of the highest electricity rates in the nation and
many post-mining communities. The Mather had the available data and the community,
including the energy provider, was open to sharing it. Tim does a good job explaining
this, especially from the vantage of industrial archaeology. 

TS: We wanted to do a single, detailed study. We wanted the results to be broadly
applicable around the United States and the world. So we decided to look at an abandoned
mine instead of one that was active and nearing the predicted end of operations. We
wanted a mine that was large enough to consider multiple scales, responsive to local
needs or aimed at supporting a large power grid. We also thought it would be important
to find an example where the heritage of mining was important in the community. Finally,
we needed to be able to get a lot of data about the mine and the regional energy grid. 

We landed on Negaunee because Michigan Tech researchers had partnered in the past
with WPPI Energy, a Wisconsin-based cooperative energy transmission company. WPPI had kindly shared
all kinds of grid data with MTU in the past: the detailed and granular business information
that most for-profit companies keep private. We realized that WPPI provided service
to Negaunee, which also had historical iron mines that ticked off all the other boxes
for the project. I researched the historic mines in the community and we went to a
meeting with Nate Heffron, city manager, and his staff. When we explained the idea
of our project, Nate detailed the cultural significance of the different mines in
the area and how people would want us to avoid certain mines. He and his staff pointed
us to the Mather B. It was the perfect place to start. 

Q: This is more than an energy-storage initiative. Tell us how it speaks to the character,
culture and needs of post-mining communities where the remnants of former operations
are historic artifacts and may also be eyesores and hazards.

RS: People want to be proud of the places where they are born and where they live.
We heard over and over again from older folks about how wonderful it would be if mines
were put to good use again. Younger people remarked about how much they love the U.P.,
how they would like to stay and raise their families here if there are economic opportunities
present. PUSH can do both and different generations can be proud of what mines have
done and would continue doing for the country and the world.

The Quincy Hoist and Shafthouse under a blue sky with the remnants of mining housing and storage in the foreground as researchers consider new ways to use old mines to empower community with electricity and agency.
The way post-mining communities choose to interpret and engage with the remnants of
their heritage varies widely, even in the same region. The Quincy Mine, on Michigan’s
Keweenaw Peninsula, is one more than 1,000 old hard-metal mines across the nation
with the potential to add reliable energy storage to the mix, offering even more possibilities.

TS: Throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, mining is important to the heritage of
communities. People in the Copper Country talk about our geoheritage — the way that the lake, the basalt bluffs and the copper shaped our lives. The same
is true in Michigan’s iron ranges. When visitors come to the Keweenaw, people take
them to the Quincy Mine or another of the old mine sites. In Negaunee and Ishpeming,
they visit the Cliffs Shaft Museum or the Michigan Iron Industry Museum, or the Iron Mining Museum in Iron Mountain. School groups tour the mines to learn about our heritage. Families
travel from all over to visit the mines and elders teach their children family history.
Rock hunters come to walk the poor rock piles to find minerals. Landowners and organizations operate these mines as different kinds of heritage
sites, experimenting with formal educational programs in collaboration with the National Park Service, or as adventure and ecotourism destinations, or as entirely self-guided discovery
sites with no formal programming. The mines are also bat habitat and greenspace. People take their ATVs out to Gay to tear around the stamp sands. People do these things in many of the post-mining regions of the world. Many of
those places suffer far greater ecological contamination than we have in Michigan,
particularly from mill tailings.

So on the one hand, abandoned mines always present problems. There are ecological
challenges with water quality and mill waste. Slumping ground or abandoned industrial buildings present challenges for human health
and safety. Post-mining communities often suffer from demographic decline and economic
recessions. When boom shifts to bust, the cultural impacts are painful and people
struggle with blight. At the same time, many scholars identify the strong sense of
place in mining communities: hardscrabble people and hard landscapes, labor struggle
and difficult work, and ever-present sacrifice. 

Some people see the earth slowly reclaiming scars, others see the sweat and toil of
their ancestors, some remember struggle and the loss of displacement while others
see refuge in “God’s Country.” Yet more have other visions for post-mining places. 

“These places matter to people. They are not wastelands. They are not abandoned. They
matter.”Tim Scarlett, PUSH team member and industrial archaeology expert

So, can we use PUSH as an opportunity to listen to all these groups of people and
find what they value in these places? Help them find shared values and discover how
(and if) an energy storage project can meet the needs of our evolving energy infrastructure
while also reinforcing those things that people value in these places? Many of these
communities continue to pay the costs of industrial wealth production, though they
no longer reap benefits from its extraction. Can PUSH systems change that dynamic
and allow these communities to use the mines as a focal point to recenter the landscape
of energy production, distribution and consumption while also supporting other heritage
uses of the landscape?

A researcher for pumped underground storage hydropower sits at the doors of an old tram car at the Quincy Mine site.
MTU faculty member and researcher Timothy Scarlett has been studying Keweenaw’s post-mining
communities for decades; community engagement is intergral to his work. Michigan Tech’s
Industrial Heritage and Archaeology Ph.D. program is the only of its kind in the world.

Q: You narrowed the criteria to exclude nonmetallic mines. Why? Does that mean other
kinds of mines aren’t suitable?

RS: This remains to be seen, but why not go after the best resource available? If
the United States had supergiant oil and natural gas fields like Saudi Arabia and
Qatar, we might have never seen hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling be so
prevalent in the country. 

TS: We wanted to do our first study of a mine that was entirely underground because
we were imagining a facility that was self-contained, meaning it wasn’t drawing water
from or discharging into natural lakes, streams or other waterways. Designing that
type of system requires that the geology be solid to support the weight of the rock
and water. Some types of mine ore, such as coal, are notoriously unstable because
of the mineralogy of the ore and the types of rocks commonly found with the ore. So
in our large study, we excluded mine types and ore types commonly associated with
unstable undergrounds.


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Old energy policies out. Energy transition in. Tech faculty member and energy policy
expert Roman Sidortsov says harnessing a resource we already have — mines that can
store energy to use as needed — can help propel new power security and stability around
the world.

Keep in mind that the United States Geological Survey data includes all kinds of things extracted in economic geology: coal mines, quarries
for gravel, clay and sand pits, salt, etc., as well as mine types like open-pit or
those commonly known as “mountain-top removal” mines. There are other types of energy
storage systems that might function in mines like those, but they are technologies
that are still under development. We wanted to be able to tell people, “We have been
very conservative, but this is the number of mines we think could work for this type
of facility.”

30,000 

people provided with continuous power for 3.5 months—at a profit—at the Mather B Mine
site alone.

(PUSH study findings)

1,000 

possible sites for grid-scale PUSH facilities in the U.S., with the capacity to meet
the nation’s projected storage needs

(PUSH study findings)

Q: One of the major questions is how dewatering and potential wastewater contamination
would be handled. How does the report address this scenario?

RS: Our water testing did not show any major concerns, but we were limited in the
depth we were able to reach. Both mine water treatment and mine dewatering is something
that mining companies do all the time. Like with pumped storage hydro, no new technologies
are necessary to get the job done.

TS: It is important to remember that if a mine is filled with polluted water, that
water already exists and is in the environment. The abandoned mine is already exchanging
water with the local groundwater, or draining into surface waters. Because the mine
is sealed off at the surface does not mean the pollution will go away. The key question
is, “If we start pumping this water around, will this make the water quality worse?”
That question needs more research. 

Now we know that a PUSH facility could be profitable, operating to store and resell
energy and providing grid services. So once the PUSH facility is built and operating,
what would it cost to add a water treatment system to the facility? If the site is
established as a sustainable, long-term revenue-generating utility, there will be
ways to sustainably treat the water. Perhaps the facility’s operator could use regular
tax incentives to offset water treatment costs and improve the water quality in the
mine, for example. 

Could the utility operator also operate a reclamation system to recover the valuable
metals dissolved in the warm mine water? The facility is already pumping the water
around and making money. What is the marginal cost of adding a reclamation system
to the process? Mines commonly recapture minerals from aqueous solutions. And while
thinking about that, what about the heat energy? What would the marginal cost be of
adding a geothermal heat pump or binary cycle power generator to the system? Could
you harvest the minerals and the thermal energy as valuable materials? 

“We know how to treat mine water. In 2019 the Environmental Protection Agency approved
discharges of treated water from Anaconda’s old Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana. The
Berkeley Pit is among the most toxic and polluted mine water in the world. It is not
a question of whether or not the water can be treated, it is only a question of who
will pay for it.”Timothy Scarlett, PUSH team member and industrial archaeology expert

 An operating utility or industrial facility using a formerly abandoned mine provides
a tenant who will keep an eye on abandoned mine remains, water quality, old impoundments
and so on.

Q: About $5 million in federal funding was initially set aside for mine remediation
programs. Billions of dollars more have since been aimed at these issues, including
$9 billion for energy transition and climate in the 2022 White House budget. How do
you see the PUSH initiative fitting in?

RS: Very well. What can these facilities do for these particular communities to make
sure damage is remediated? If you already have a place where these facilities can
work, there’s no need to put more holes in the ground. Also, siting an electricity
storage system in a place that was used for industrial purposes means that another
“greenfield” site — one that has not been developed — can be left alone, avoiding
environmental damage.

TS: The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act put aside $3 billion for abandoned
hardrock mine reclamation projects. President Biden’s proposal for the 2023 fiscal
year budget includes programs in energy development and former mine land remediations.
Agencies are looking for plans for integrated solutions that mix reclamation design,
greenspace expansion and renewable energy development. We could design such projects
around an underground PUSH system and begin converting former mine lands into reclaimed
landscapes that produce sustainable, carbon-neutral energy and provide it to the grid
with long-duration storage built in. No need for more batteries and more mines to
make them.

Q: Aesthetic, environmental and community concerns about energy infrastructure development
figured hugely in this research. Tim, you’ve said old mines matter to people. They’re
a heritage resource. How did that factor into the research?

RS: Aesthetic concerns are what killed many conventional pumped storage projects in
the past. Putting an industrial-looking facility on a mountainside is off-putting
to many. No such concerns exist if the facility is inside a mine.

TS: These concerns were foundational to our approach and we had many expectations
about those concerns. But for this study, we tried to imagine a PUSH system at its
most basic. Could a private developer build a PUSH system in the Mather Mine in Negaunee
and make money? Now that we have insight on that, we can explore variations. We have
this pre-feasibility study that people in government and industry can sink their teeth
into, that current- and post-mining communities and other interest groups can consider.
Now we have a framework around which we can really talk about tangible pluses and
minuses, advantages and disadvantages. This example shows that it is worth making
more serious investments in PUSH solutions. It will be worthwhile for organizations
and individuals to put the time and energy into relationships and collaborations among
regulators, investors, municipal staff, community organizers and consumers. 

Q: What and who do you hope this report will inspire? What are the next steps they
can take?

RS: As an energy scholar, I hope to see a paradigm shift in the way we make decisions
about energy. Let’s ask what energy is for, and where and how it is made. 

“If we need a quarter, let’s look under the couch first before building a mint. In
the case of PUSH, we might find enough ‘quarters’ to help power the world for a long
time.”Roman Sidortsov, PUSH team leader, energy policy expert

TS: I hope we can develop more partnerships so Michigan Tech can facilitate more of
these studies — much more could be done. There are a series of emerging energy and
environmental technologies that could be designed into PUSH facilities to make them
even more profitable or valuable or extend the benefits a facility would create: direct
geothermal HVAC, binary-cycle geothermal electric power, carbon capture, superdense
fluid-based PUSH, hydrometallurgical extraction and mineral recovery and so on. I
hope we can start thinking about abandoned mines ecologically, really embracing circular
design, and shifting mining away as far as possible from naked extraction, instead
making it a part of developing sustainable and fair energy systems for resilient communities.

Q: How does your work on this continue? 

RS: I would like to keep going “deep” and “wide,” mapping more sites in the U.S. and
worldwide, developing frameworks for comprehensive assessments. We have a couple of
pending grant applications that we hope will enable us to do so. This idea is too
valuable and too promising to not continue. 

An energy policy expert and his dog sit on the lawn of Quincy Mine, the place where the researcher (while jogging with his dog) had an energy aha moment.
What does Roman Sidortsov’s family pup Archie have to do with the energy policy faculty
member and researcher’s breakthrough idea? Find out more in our PUSH Q&A video and upcoming stories — and subscribe to Michigan Tech News for weekly updates on campus life and life-changing research.  

TS: I’m excited to talk with residents from other post-mining communities — their
civic and municipal leaders, teachers and students, and others living with mining
legacies. This is a rare moment in time where communities can choose to leverage their
liabilities as assets. Local residents and community organizations have information
of value to planners and designers during the energy transition. I want these communities
to understand PUSH and related technologies as potential problem-solving opportunities,
appreciate the value of the information they have about their heritage, conduct their
own heritage assessments and build consensus about potential projects, and understand
how to use existing policy and regulatory processes in their favor. I’d like to send
teams of PUSH-project students to visit communities, engaging them in their homes
and landscapes. I’d also like to bring people from mining communities here to Michigan
Tech and the Copper Country, such as groups of high school teachers and students,
so they can learn about PUSH and see examples of how others have converted heritage
mines into sustainable assets in our communities. When they get home, they’d become
leaders for conversations about processes of sustainable design, helping people do
their own pre-feasibility studies and building social consensus about the future.
The energy transition is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get things right. I
want to help with one part of that.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.



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