Pumped

April 28, 2022

Sitting on the front page next to the lead story detailing the Garth Brooks concert at Razorback Stadium breaking the previous attendance record, our local newspaper carried an AP reprint of the “world’s largest batteries’.  One concern with transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy is where to get power if the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.  Pumped storage has been used in the US since 1930, but most systems were built later to hold electricity from nuclear plants.  These are called “the world’s largest batteries” since they hold large amounts of energy.  The US has 43 pumped storage facilities that hold about 22 gigawatts, but only one has been added since 1995.  There are more than 90 planned facilities, but it is unclear if they will prevail over the legal, economic, and practical issues faced.  Three projects have been permitted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), but none are being built.  More than 60 are being built worldwide, mostly in Europe, India, China, and Japan.

When I looked online, I found pumped storage hydropower (PSH) is a type of hydroelectric energy storage where water is sent from a lower reservoir to an upper one.  The configuration of two water reservoirs at different elevations can generate power as water moves down from above while passing through a turbine.  The system requires power to pump water back into the upper reservoir to recharge the system.  PSH acts like a giant battery and can store power and release it when needed.  There are two different types of PSH systems.  An open-loop PSH has an ongoing hydrologic connection to a natural body of water, while the closed-loop PSH reservoirs are not connected to an outside body of water.

During a January hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Malcolm Woolf, president of the National Hydropower Association, complained the process for approval involves too many agencies.  Although FERC permits new facilities and relicenses existing ones, other federal, state, and tribal offices have roles, and every project has case-specific issues.  The industry would like an investment tax credit like solar and wind receive.  The Administration’s plan calls for the tax break but is stuck in Congress.  The Australian National University used computer mapping to identify more than 600,000 “potentially feasible” pumped storage sites worldwide, including 32,000 in the US.  These sites could store 100 times the energy needed to support a global renewable electricity network.  The study did not check whether these sites would meet environmental or cultural protection standards or be commercially viable.  

THOUGHTS:  Opponents say pumped storage hydropower systems can have negative impacts on land and wildlife, such as disruption of fish spawning routes or creation of large reservoirs that fill canyons.  In geographically flat places, PSH may be difficult to use.  Constructing the PSH systems involves destruction of trees and green land to build reservoirs, and the reservoirs change the local ecological system which can create environmental consequences.  PSH projects raise hard questions and unpleasant tradeoffs.  Unless we reduce the amount of power (unlikely) used we are forced to decide what will we give up achieving decarbonization.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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