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The perfect battery: Pumped storage hydropower is reliable, rechargeable, and clean

June 20, 2018

By Paul Blaszczyk

In the search for better renewable energy options, pumped storage hydropower projects may be the solution, but regulations hinder development

Around the world, governments at the national, regional, and local level are setting aggressive renewable energy goals. The state of California has a goal of 100% of their electrical power from renewable energy sources by the end of 2045. New York City set a similar goal of 100% renewable generation by 2050. Australia set a Renewable Energy Target of 33,000 Gigawatt-hours of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. 

To achieve these targets, many are choosing variable renewable resources, like wind and solar. The upside is they are quick to install and have low initial cost, but the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine when energy is in demand. Energy storage has become a critical partner to wind and solar, especially as renewable energy targets aggressively expand.

Tesla co-founder Elon Musk has recently dominated the energy-storage conversation with talk of lithium-ion batteries. The technology headlines are captivating and Musk brings a celebrity-like following to the discussion. More recently, a large, long standing turbine generator equipment supplier has entered the discussion by unveiling a battery-based modular energy storage for AC or DC coupled systems. There is no doubt that battery technology is advancing rapidly, and while it is getting much of the attention, new battery technology accounts for only a small fraction of the global available energy storage. Also, the environmental and social impacts of the full life-cycle of batteries must be considered, from the mining of copper, aluminum, and lithium and their transport to factories, to the eventual disposal of these materials at the end of useful life. 

The biggest battery

In the US, one technology accounts for 95% of the energy storage capacity—pumped storage hydropower. Traditionally, pumped storage hydropower pumps water to a higher elevation when energy prices are low, which can then be released back through the reversible turbines as needed to meet energy demand. It is a utility scale battery with virtually immediate response time. Even better, when linked to variable energy resources such as wind or solar, it can store the energy produced and provide it at peak demand times or when intermittent renewables are not generating.  

A great example of this is the 1,095-Megawatt Rocky Mountain Pumped Storage project in Georgia. This project was completed in 1995 and is still providing energy and reliability to the Georgia and broader Southeastern power grid. By pumping water up to a reservoir when other sources are generating, this plant can store nearly 7,000 MW hours that can be used as power when needed. That is more than 50 times greater (yes 50!) than the electricity storage of the largest constructed battery farm.

There is a place for all renewable energy resources—and energy storage technologies—in our collective generation toolbox. Pumped storage is a proven grid-scale, energy-storage technology that can help increase all forms of energy generation.

So, if the energy storage issues being discussed today have a tried and true economical solution, why aren’t we using more pumped storage to help grow more renewable generation?

Energy storage has become a critical partner to wind and solar, especially as renewable energy targets aggressively expand.

Regulatory roadblocks

It is because the current regulatory framework and energy market structure in the US require a long-term commitment and vision for these projects to be built. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has issued only a small handful of pumped-storage facility licenses in recent years. Policy changes are needed to support the timely development of additional grid-scale energy storage. The National Hydropower Association has developed a series of recommendations to guide the energy industry and policy makers.

A few of the NHA’s key policy recommendations include:

  • Create market products that allow flexible energy storage resources to provide services that help meet electric grid requirements.
  • Level the policy playing field for pumped storage hydropower with other storage technologies to encourage the development and deployment of all energy storage resources.
  • Establish an alternative, streamlined licensing process for low-impact pumped storage hydropower, such as off-channel or closed-loop projects.
  • Improve integration of federal and state agencies into the early-stage licensing processes for pumped storage hydropower.
  • Facilitate an energy market structure where transmission providers benefit from long-term agreements with energy storage facility developers.

The Rocky Mountain Pumped Storage facility in Georgia can store almost 7,000 Megawatt hours.

European energy markets can provide some guidance on how markets can be structured to help promote energy storage technologies that in turn support more renewable energy development like wind, solar, and hydro.

The sites and opportunities are there.

For example, we have partnered with our client to navigate the regulatory system of the 1,300-MW Eagle Crest plant in California. However, even if the process goes smoothly the best result you can hope for is a 6-year turnaround. This is in spite of the fact that in 2015, the US Department of Energy issued its Hydropower Vision Report where it set an ambitious goal of 35.5 GW of pumped storage be available on the US grid by 2050. That is the equivalent of 30 Rocky Mountain Pumped Storage projects.

Around the world, pumped storage is recognized as the battery of choice. In southern Australia alone, 185 potential sites have been identified and pumped storage projects are under development in China, Israel, Japan, and the United Kingdom—just to name a few.

Proven technology with potential    

We all appreciate the need for clean, renewable, economical power generation, but few realize the important role that energy storage plays in allowing more renewable generation to be built and to still be able to meet the reliability and timing demands of electricity consumers. Even fewer realize that there is an existing, proven technology—pumped storage hydro—with a lot more development potential to meet our energy storage needs and help grow our renewable generation portfolio.

To meet the goals for renewable energy generation and to realize its benefits, your voice is needed to encourage governments and regulatory bodies to implement practical policy and market changes to make energy storage, and especially pumped storage hydro, faster and easier to bring to reality. Future generations and our planet will thank you.

  • Paul Blaszczyk

    Paul helps our team and our clients create effective strategies that make hydropower, dam, and other projects successful.

    Contact Paul
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