Past offers future: Water in old mines can create power

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette State Reps. Greg Markkanen, foreground, and Beau LaFave, right of Markkanen, talk with Michigan Technological University students María Gimenez Prades and Laura Grotjan about their poster “Active Heritage: Where Industrial Archaeology meets Community” at the Great Lakes Research Center Friday.

HOUGHTON — Running on a trail by the Quincy Mine Shaft, Roman Sidortsov started thinking about the elevation — and, as a newcomer to the area, his first electric bills.

“The two things clicked,” said Sidortsov, an assistant professor of energy policy at Michigan Technological University.

The combination led him to energy storage, in the form of using mine shafts for pumped hydro storage. With surplus power, water would be pumped to the higher levels of the mine. When energy is needed on the grid, the water would be released, powering a turbine.

Aboveground projects, with their potential for ecological and aesthetic disturbance, have had permitting troubles. The solution is to go underground.

Tech and the city of Negaunee are collaborating on a pilot study using the Mather B iron mine, which closed in 1979.

He partnered on the project with Tim Scarlett, associate professor of archaeology and anthropology at Tech. Negaunee and other former mining communities in the U.P. face similar issues, such as cultural revitalization and environmental remediation.

The Mather Mine is an example of another form of reuse — buildings have been converted into Negaunee High School.

In contrast to the traditional path of developing a project, then bringing it to the public, Tech’s team suggests a community-led plan.

“If you turn that around instead and start involving with the community as partners at the beginning of the process, buy-in and acceptance and design of the project evolves to fit community needs,” Scarlett said.

The two-year, $50,000 pilot project is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a nonprofit that funds projects in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and economics.

Friday, Tech students explored facets of the project through posters and presentations at the Great Lakes Research Center Friday, from water quality issues to security issues of adaptive reuse.

Drawing on the experience of asbestos miners in the Russian town of Asbest, students Timothy Stone and Gavin Walters talked about the pride the towns felt in the structures.

“We don’t want to violate that image and that cultural importance,” Stone said. “But by using renewables and this really cool project as the center of the revitalization, we get to take the desires of these people that really want to push forward and pair them with people that just don’t want to see their culture lost and use those to really move into the future.”

State Rep. Greg Markkanen, R-Hancock, watched the presentations and talked with students alongside Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain. He was impressed.

“It’s a great example of Michigan Tech pushing the envelope and coming up with possible solutions for the high cost of energy across the U.P.,” Markkanen said. “We do pay one of the highest rates in the nation. People want some solutions and want some alternatives.

“Renewables are good, too, but we have a lot of mine shafts, and we have a lot of brownfield sites that could possibly be reused.”

Markkanen, who sits on the House’s Energy Committee, said he would look at ways the Legislature could aid the project and similar developments. Brownfield grants would be one avenue, he said.