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Dec 03, 2015 at 09:51 AM

Robot train in desert planned to store green energy

By Ares North America

By Henry Brean, Las Vegas Review-Journal

Read the complete article here: www.reviewjournal.com

A California company wants to build a rail line to nowhere in the desert west of Las Vegas.

And, no, that isn't some mean-spirited joke about the proposed high-speed train to Victorville.

This rail line — the first of its kind anywhere in the world — would run 5.5 miles up the western slope of the Spring Mountains near Pahrump to store electricity and stabilize the power grid.

It's known as Advanced Rail Energy Storage, or ARES for short, and it basically uses gravity to store and release energy, smoothing out fluctuations on the grid caused by uneven generation from solar and wind power plants.

As surplus power from such renewable projects comes in, it will be used to push an automated shuttle train up the hill. Then when electricity is needed on the grid, the train will be sent back down the hill, generating power through its braking system as it goes.

"It's like a Prius," said Francesca Cava, the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based vice president of operations for ARES.

The 50-megawatt facility is expected to cost $55 million and employ as many as 125 people during eight months of construction and 16 full-time operations staff to run the facility around the clock.

Plans call for the standard-gauge track to be shared by seven shuttle trains, each with two electric locomotives to haul multiple weighted cars. Cava said the movement of the locomotives will be intermittent and relatively slow, never more than about 20 miles an hour, along the track's 7 percent to 8 percent grade.

The system is designed to respond to changes in the grid in less than 10 seconds, she said. It uses no water or fossil fuels and produces no emissions.

"It will be no noisier than a window air conditioner," Cava said.

ARES could go online in 2017 and operate for 40 years, she said, roughly the same life expectancy of a conventional power station or "any train."

First, though, the company must win approval from the Bureau of Land Management to build on 72 acres of federal land at the southern edge of Pahrump about 60 miles west of Las Vegas.

The project's operations and maintenance facilities would be in Nye County, but much of the rail line would be in Clark County. Current plans call for the tracks to cross the unpaved road leading into Carpenter Canyon, something that would require ARES to put up and maintain a safe crossing with signs, said Greg Helseth, Southern Nevada project manager for BLM's renewable energy coordination office.

About 20 people turned out on Oct. 28 when the BLM held a public meeting in Pahrump on the proposal. The bureau will accept input on ARES through Wednesday.

Helseth said BLM should release a final record of decision on the project sometime early next year with a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. After that, the project will need a right-of-way and a notice to proceed with construction on federal land, he said.

To demonstrate the technology, ARES built a small pilot version of the project on 800 feet of track in Tehachapi, Calif. Cava said the slope leading into Carpenter Canyon is the ideal place for the much larger, utility-scale version.

"In the whole world, this is some of the best geography we could find," she said.

The project's access to the grid will be provided by Valley Electric Association, a Pahrump-based, member-owned, nonprofit utility with a service area that includes more than 6,800 square-miles and 45,000 people in Nevada and California.

"We're just the pipeline," said Chris Tomchuk, executive vice president of operations and engineering for Valley Electric.

Still, the rural utility is excited to be part of what Tomchuk called "cutting edge technology" rooted in old ideas.

"As an engineer, I'm disappointed I didn't get to design this," he said. "It's pretty cool."

Public comments on the project can be submitted by mail to Greg Helseth, BLM SNDO, 4701 Torrey Pines Drive, Las Vegas, NV 89130 or by email to [email protected]

An environmental assessment of the project is available online at http://1.usa.gov/1k4UOJD.

Posted in ARES News.