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Pumped Hydro Storage

Published on April 18th, 2011 | by Susan Kraemer


Thought Solar Was Hard to Permit? Try Pumped Storage!

April 18th, 2011 by  

When you consider the environmental benefits of solar power for providing electricity, it has always seemed unfair that it takes so much bureaucracy to overcome to get it built, even in the nation’s leader, California.

Whereas a natural gas power plant sails through the permitting process with ease, solar can take years and be tripped up by technicalities that don’t slow the permitting of polluting power plants.

But compared with the difficulties of getting solar projects built, pumped hydro storage is almost impossible, according to Energy Prospects. Pumped hydro uses off-peak power, typically excess wind power at night, to pump water uphill. When the electricity is needed next morning, it is released.

As we add more renewable energy to the nation’s mix, we need more energy storage, for intermittent sources like wind and solar, so this delay in storage is a real roadblock. Last year 25 Terawatt hours of wind power had to be idled for lack of energy storage.

Because it is a hydro resource, pumped storage is governed by the notoriously slow pace of FERC permitting. Pumped-hydro projects can literally take decades.

One company that has successfully stayed more or less in business throughout the permitting process for traditional pumped hydro storage is Symbiotics, which is based in Utah. They received preliminary permits from FERC for two Utah pumped-hydro projects, one that has a capacity of 700 MW in Rich County, due online in 2020, and another, in Piutte County, Utah, with a capacity of about 1,330 MW, due online in 2017.

During this long drawn out process, Symbiotics was bought out by a new kind of hydro-power startup, Riverbank Power, which acquired Symbiotics in a merger a few months ago. Riverbank Power is the highly innovative company we wrote about last year that uses gravity under rivers to store hydro power: Pump Hydro Underground to Store Wind Power.

Vince Lamarra, founder and former CEO of  Symbiotics, and now vice president of project development at Riverbank Power, is sanguine about the time it takes to get permitted and built; about a decade.

“In a best-case scenario, you might be able to get a federal license in five years, but then it takes another two years for the engineering and then three more years to build a pumped-storage project, and they cost about $1.5 billion to $2 billion to build, because they are very large facilities,” he said.

Learning from the experience of past failures to get permits by Symbiotics, the new merged company looks for sites where it is possible to develop man-made closed-loop systems, like Riverbank Power innovated.

Closed-loop systems use upper and lower reservoirs connected by sealed penstocks, and often use water acquired from irrigation or other groundwater rights holders. Because these are man-made water reservoirs, there is minimal environmental impact. This speeds permitting, but makes for a much larger footprint, with associated expense.

Fortunately, under the much more renewable-friendly new FERC director, Jon Wellinghoff, FERC now has a fire under it. Since 2008, 36 other projects in the West have received preliminary permits, and there are 9 new applications.

Image: Pumped storage on Lake Michigan

Susan Kraemer@Twitter

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About the Author

writes at CleanTechnica, CSP-Today and Renewable Energy World.  She has also been published at Wind Energy Update, Solar Plaza, Earthtechling PV-Insider , and GreenProphet, Ecoseed, NRDC OnEarth, MatterNetwork, Celsius, EnergyNow, and Scientific American. As a former serial entrepreneur in product design, Susan brings an innovator's perspective on inventing a carbon-constrained civilization: If necessity is the mother of invention, solving climate change is the mother of all necessities! As a lover of history and sci-fi, she enjoys chronicling the strange future we are creating in these interesting times.    Follow Susan on Twitter @dotcommodity.

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  • Anumakonda Jagadeesh

    Good post Susan Kraemer. Pumped storage is an option for Renewables,
    especially for wind, where many times the resource doesn’t match the utility electric loads, pumped storage may be a viable option to add value to the wind or other renewable energy resource.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    Wind Energy Expert
    E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

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  • Anonymous

    An important topic. A few points, however:

    (1) The article is a little misleading on challenges of licensing pumped storage because it is not reasonable to rely on the two projects that have notoriously been in that process for so long (Eagle Mountain and Lake Elsinore). These projects were conceived at a time when the market for pumped storage was poor, so part of their delay is attributable to market conditions rather than to the FERC licensing process. Also, these projects have some elements that make them more complex, such as Lake Elsinore’s dependency on a 35-mile transmission line through a national forest.

    (2) The article omitted mention of the newly introduced Hydropower Improvement Act, which has bipartisan support, and one clause of which asks FERC to shorten the licensing process for low-impact process to two years.

    (3) The concept of closed-loop pumped storage was actually brought to the market by Peak Power Corporation back in the early 1990’s. The firm filed with FERC for a dozen smaller, “modular” pumped storage projects that would not utilize natural waterways. But the market, again, wasn’t receptive at the time.

    (4) There are many new closed-loop projects being introduced for purposes of integrating renewable resources, including twelve from Gridflex Energy, LLC. Each site is unique and each will be on its own timeline. With smart site selection, smaller, compact sites, and a faster-paced timeline, Gridflex believes that its projects could be online within 8 years, possibly sooner.

    • Susan Kraemer

      Thanks for these points, great additions.

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