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From Stantec ERA: Pumped storage is the answer to the sustainable energy-storage dilemma

June 10, 2019

By Paul Blaszczyk

Pumped-storage hydropower is a reliable, clean, and sustainable answer to our energy-storage needs and renewable energy growth

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% electrical power from renewable energy sources by 2045. New York City is working to reduce their carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Australia set a renewable energy target of 33,000 GW of renewable electricity by 2020.  

To achieve these targets, many are choosing intermittent renewable resources, like wind and solar. The upside is they are quick to install and have low initial costs—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 cofounder Elon Musk 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 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 their useful life.

Pumped-storage hydropower is a perfect match for renewable energy sources like wind and solar. 

Read and download Stantec era: The Energy Remix

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 intermittent energy resources such as wind or solar, it can store the renewable energy produced and provide it at peak demand times when intermittent renewables are not generating.

Pumped-storage hydropower … is a utility-scale battery with virtually immediate response time.

A great example of this is the 1,095-MW Rocky Mountain Pumped Storage project in Georgia. This project was completed in 1995 and is providing reliable energy to the Georgia and broader Southeastern power grid. By pumping water up to a reservoir when other sources are generating and demand is low, this plant can store nearly 7,000 MW hours that can be used when needed.

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 renewable 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 renewable generation?

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.

The Rocky Mountain Pumped Storage facility in Georgia, which can store nearly 7,000 MW hours to be used when needed.

The sites and opportunities are there

We’ve partnered with our clients to navigate the complex regulatory system in the US. Several of them received their FERC licenses within the past several years, however, construction remains years away. This is despite the fact in 2015, the US Department of Energy issued its Hydropower Vision Report in which 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.

Greenfield development of pumped storage projects is not the only way to add storage. Stantec is partnering with several owners of pumped-storage projects in North America to plan and implement the refurbishment and upgrade programs at their facilities. While these provide incremental increases at the plants, the combined upgrades are chipping away at the overall energy-storage need.

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. The locations are available but the incentives are lacking, and the roadblocks remain.

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 hydropower—with a lot more development potential to meet our energy storage needs and help grow our renewable-generation portfolio.

For communities around the globe to realize their renewable-energy goals, pumped storage must be a part of their energy plan. Governments and regulatory bodies must implement practical policy and market changes to make energy storage—especially pumped-storage hydropower—faster and less cumbersome to build. Future generations and our planet will thank us.

  • 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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