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$2.5 billion Susquehanna River hydroelectric project sparks opposition

  • By Elizabeth Deornellas/LNP | LancasterOnline
Proposed project boundaries for a dam and power turbine on the Susquehanna River in Chanceford Township, York County.


Proposed project boundaries for a dam and power turbine on the Susquehanna River in Chanceford Township, York County.

Local environmentalists are rallying opposition to a $2.5 billion dam and power turbine project on the Susquehanna River after the plan passed one regulatory hurdle.

The public has through March 31 to comment on York Energy Storage LLC’s plan to construct a 1.8-mile-long dam and flood 580 acres in Chanceford Township, York County, to create a hydroelectric facility designed to feed power into the regional grid.

The Cuffs Run pumped storage project, named for a Susquehanna River tributary that would become part of the flooded zone, would create a kind of battery. Water pumped uphill from Lake Clarke, the stretch of flat water created by the nearby Safe Harbor Dam, would be held in the newly formed reservoir and then run downhill through turbines to create electricity.

The dispute between the project’s backers and opponents presents dueling definitions of what it means to be green.

Environmental groups see the project as destructive to an as-yet-undisturbed stretch of a river already crowded with hydroelectric plants. The project’s developers view the proposed power plant as a key part of the region’s transition to renewable energy.

Preliminary assessments estimate the project’s 1,000-acre total footprint would affect 50 properties, three preserved farms, 2 miles of the Mason-Dixon trail in York County, and hundreds of acres of forest.

“We feel this is a multicounty issue as to whether we are a community that wants to give up this forest and farmland or fight for it,” Lancaster Conservancy CEO Fritz Schroeder said, “and we believe it is definitely worth the fight.”

READ: York Energy storage aims to build dam on 1000 acres in York County

After public comment closes on April 1, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will review York Energy Storage’s application and decide whether to grant a preliminary permit. If regulators approve that permit, it will trigger a four-year process of ecological and economic impact studies.

The permit application lists more than 20 proposed impact studies, ranging from land surveys to vegetation and wildlife assessments to tax and employment projections, at a total estimated cost of nearly $11 million.

Bill McMahon, who runs York Energy Storage with his partner Jan Sockel, has been working on a version of the project since its original proposal in the 1990s. Another attempt stalled in 2011. McMahon’s current desired timeline would bring the plant online in 2033.

The permit application lists an inflation estimate of 3% and a total cost estimate of $2.3 billion, but McMahon said he has since revised the inflation estimate to 4% and raised the total estimated cost to $2.5 billion.

Evaluating pumped storage

Assessing the potential economic and environmental impact of the proposal requires acknowledging the essential inefficiency of pumped storage plants.

The energy it takes to pump water uphill exceeds the amount of energy a pumped storage plant can generate as the water runs back downhill through turbines.

Ted Evgeniadis, executive director of the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, cites that inefficiency as one reason he opposes the project.

McMahon said the plant is designed to convert 80% of the energy fed into it to exportable energy.

If the growth in renewable technology continues to accelerate, solar and wind sources could generate more than the grid can absorb, and that excess energy could be used to pump water at the Cuffs Run plant, McMahon said.

In that case, running the water back downhill through the turbines would release energy first generated from solar and wind. That process would be taking advantage of energy that would otherwise be wasted, and that energy could supply the grid at times when solar and wind are not producing, McMahon said.

McMahon acknowledged that the value assessment would be different if the plant were fed with the coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy sources that dominate the current grid.

“Our project is planned to meet the needs of the future, not today,” McMahon said.

The reliance of today’s pumped storage technology on natural gas and coal isn’t the only reason environmental groups say the project should not be considered green energy.

Schroeder said the destruction of carbon-storing, biodiverse forest should also be factored into the project’s cost and cited studies that show the organic matter trapped in dam reservoirs generates a significant amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. More on the Conservancy’s objections can be viewed at

Federal regulators rejected the permit application, originally submitted in February 2023, multiple times, asking for additional information, particularly about the potential impact on the hydroelectric plant Brookfield Renewable U.S. operates at the Safe Harbor dam.

McMahon said he provided Brookfield with a study showing that operating Cuffs Run and Safe Harbor plants at the same time would stabilize water levels in Lake Clarke and make operations more efficient. He added that the study is 30 years old and would be redone if the Cuffs Run project progresses.

Brookfield emailed this statement: “York Energy Storage has not provided Safe Harbor Water Power Corporation with the information necessary to adequately assess their claims concerning the impacts of the YES Project on our Safe Harbor Project.”

Objectors prepare next steps

During the public comment period, environmental groups and elected officials are renewing their efforts to announce opposition to the Cuffs Run project.

Republican state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill of York joined 17 nonprofit and local government groups in signing a July 2023 letter urging federal regulators to reject York Energy Storage’s application for a preliminary permit.

“This project does nothing but ravage pristine and preserved farmland in York County, as well as put historic and popular tourist destinations along the Susquehanna River underwater. This proposal is yet another attempt by out-of-town developers to destroy lives and livelihoods for the benefit of Maryland, which will not generate or stabilize their own power,” Phillips-Hill said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.

York Energy Storage’s plans list PJM Interconnection, which has customers across 13 states, including Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland, as the recipient of power generated at Cuffs Run.

The full list of signers on the July letter includes the Cuff’s Run Alliance, Farm & Natural Lands Trust of York County, Lancaster Conservancy, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, Susquehanna National Heritage Area, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Chesapeake Conservancy, Chesapeake Legal Alliance, City of Lancaster, Keystone Trails Association, Lancaster Farmland Trust, Mason-Dixon Trail System, PennFuture, Penns Valley Conservation Association, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Watershed Alliance of York and WeConservePA.

Evgeniadis said community engagement efforts have included reaching out to the Office of Public Participation at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to discuss hosting a public forum in Chanceford Township.

“We are all still at the table opposing this,” Evgeniadis said.

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