Pumped hydro

In my Conversation article on the Turnbull government’s plan to keep coal-fired electricity alive, I said that most of the opportunities for hydro-electric power had already been exploited. I was thinking of primary power generation, and in this respect, I maintain my view. However, I neglected the option of pumped storage, where water is pumped uphill when excess electricity is available, then run downhill through turbines to (re)generate the electricity when it is most needed.

My old university friend, Andrew Blakers, now with the Research School of Engineering at ANU emailed me to point out this study, looking at the large number of sites potentially available in Australia, more than enough to backup all the renewable energy we will be generating in the foreseeable future.

This isn’t just a theoretical proposition. The Kidston hydro storage project in the advanced stages of planning, will offer 2000MwH of storage combined with a co-located 270MW solar PV project. The same report mentions some big wind + storage projects.

Still, if Labor is silly enough to endorse Turnbull’s NEG idea, it’s hard to see any more progress being made.

34 thoughts on “Pumped hydro

  1. James, thank you. I hope the numbers I used are correct. I don’t think the figure for hydrocapacity includes pumped storage, but I could be wrong.

    Thermal storage of heat generated from electrical resistance would only be used when the economics are right. For example, when the price of electricity is very low, zero, or negative. Or alternatively, when the owner is confident they can make a profit no matter what they pay for electricity. For example, during a heatwave, thermal storage could heat up using electricity at night for 10 cents a kilowatt-hour and sell it in the day for $10 a kilowatt-hour. Even if the thermal storage is only 25% efficient, they are still $9.60 ahead.

    We have a considerable amount of peak capacity with low efficiency that sits idle most of the year. Low efficiency thermal storage could fulfill a similar role.

  2. “most of the opportunities for hydro-electric power had already been exploited”

    But not all. We could always build a dam on the Gordon River, just below the Franklin. šŸ™‚

  3. Ronald I see what you mean. But one of the characteristics of solar and wind is their indeterminacy. Of course the sun is gone at night and the wind blows when it does. The supply side needs to deal with those gaps formed when sun or wind are not available. Storage provides a method of providing power at those ties and also maintaining power quality (especially frequency and voltage). Storage provides greater reliability to the grid.
    But a variant on your approach might be to develop interim storage to manage our grid now, and develop larger structural storage like pumped hydro a little later.

  4. Gmhendo, because at this moment we can reduce emissions more per dollar by subsidizing solar and wind generating capacity than spending money on energy storage, I think energy storage should be left up to the market until it becomes clear that subsidizing it would reduce emissions by more than subsidizing wind and solar would. (It shouldn’t take long. Under 100 days for the world’s largest battery storage.)

    As for reliably meeting demand, our electricity market is supposed to result in that occurring anyway. If it can’t manage it, then Government should bite the bullet and admit it was a bad idea in the first place. At the current time, gas generation is the cheapest way to provide the dispatchable power required to meet demand. This may change.

    Even though I don’t think we should subsidize energy storage now, we can still consider what we might need in the future and prepare, but eliminating coal use by building out solar and wind capacity should be where virtually all our current available resources go.

    Actually, I would prefer to see coal and gas pay the full cost of their externalities than see solar and wind power subsidized, but apparently we can’t do that because it makes Tony Abbott cry.

  5. Ronald perhaps I am more existential than you. I see market failure in your context and government fail across all dimensions. Whatever value neoliberalism had or has, that value is now seriously depleted.

    To rely upon government intelligence and action to act effectively is not a good bet – look how they are managing energy futures right now.
    To trust the “market” to act in our best interests is a dream. They have a different agenda.

    Expecting fossil fuels to pay for their externalities? I don’t think they have that sort of money. And in any event, they would have to keep burning coal to fund their reparations.

  6. The shortcomings of our present government as it flails around trying to find a pathway forward in electricity (and NBN, and climate change, and tertiary education, and NDIS, and just about everything else) are not necessarily inherent shortcomings of government. There was a time when governments were able to think through the consequences of optional policy initiatives, reach a prudent choice and establish a functioning apparatus to support that strategy.

    We have seen the hollowing out of the administrative and analytical capacity of the public service, meaning that issues are now gravitating upwards to the political level where a political bunfight ensues without the benefit of in-depth previous research and policy legwork.

    This analytical incapacity was predictable – and predicted, by scholars of public administration like Profs Quiggin and Michael Pusey who didn’t sign up to new managerialist/neoliberal orthodoxy- as much as three decades ago. It will take as long to rebuild administrative capacity, if we can ever do it. I doubt that we can, because the forces driving the rundown of governance capacity are still operating.

  7. I have to say that I’m very doubtful of those potential storage sites.

    I had a look at the claimed sites near where I grew up, and I don’t like the odds of getting environmental approval for building dams on any of them.

  8. @Robert Merkel
    Rob I suppose that you having seen one or two of the sites you have it over me, I’m still in my armchair. But really, out of 22,000 potential sites, there is some probability that many are actually OK as pumped hydro sites. I’m thinking that the sites were identified using some GIS handiwork and that the selection criteria was intended to look for basins with an altitude difference of 250 metres or so. Closer inspection will quickly sort the less likely sites.

    It may be difficult, as you say, to get environmental approval. But is not the goal to solve a huge environmental issue, one that acts against all mankind way into the future. Environmental approval? Queensland is clearing land hand over fist as we speak. Clearing some space for pumped hydro plumbing should not be an issue at all, given the net gains possible. Anyway, I think State planning ministers can call in a project and wave it through at their discretion.

  9. @Robert Merkel

    Yes, there’s a systematic error in the site identification. Broadly, pumped hydro sites are undeveloped hills. Typically they are currently used as nature reserves because they can’t be developed. Coming up with a way to develop them doesn’t negate their conservation value, or produce other non-developed land to replace any loss of conservation value. It’s thus likely that almost all the X-thousand sites suffer from the problem that they are residual wild spaces. Whether we value those more than air conditioning is something I suspect I disagree with most Australians on.

    The flip side is that in many cases pumped hydro is fairly low impact, and the buffer zone between the hydro and any other development can provide a better defended conservation area. Although looking at the high-priced suburb of Lucas Heights, I wouldn’t count on “it’s scary living downstream of a dam” having any value at all – the buffer zone will be a few metres around the actual infrastructure.

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