A proposed 400 megawatt pumped hydro storage project near Martinsdale, Montana is a big step closer to reality. Its promoter, Absaroka Energy, announced this week it had secured $1 billion in financing from Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners in Denmark. The closed loop Gordon Butte Pumped Storage Hydro project has already received all the necessary permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and could begin construction as early as next year.
One of the principal attractions of the project is that is will be located just 6 miles away from two 500 kV high voltage transmission lines that provide power to the Pacific Northwest. That means there will be no need to build new long distance transmission lines to connect the project to the existing utility grid. The hydro project could help make Montana “the epicenter of Northwest U.S. energy generation potential,” says Absaroka Energy president Carl Borgquist. The pumps and turbines needed to make the Gordon Butte pumped hydro installation operational will be supplied by GE Renewable Energy.
According to Utility Dive, Absaroka Energy says the project is a potential alternative to building more gas fired generating facilities. “As regional energy capacity becomes more constrained,” the company says, advanced pumped storage provides twice the operational capacity of its nameplate capacity. It is “faster acting, is able to both ramp up and down, and does not carry the fuel costs and risks of natural gas fired facilities.”
Pumped hydro is an excellent way to store excess electricity for use later but it has several disadvantages. First, it must navigate a torturous regulatory process. The Gordon Butte project was first proposed in 2010. In a world where transition to renewables must happen as quickly as possible, such long lead times are simply unable to adequately address the need.
Second, pumped hydro can only work in areas that are geologically suitable for the technology. However, earlier this year researchers at the Australian National University released a report that identified more than a half million sites around the world where pumped hydro storage would be feasible. Grid scale battery storage, on the other hand, can be installed quickly — even near urban areas — with minimal permitting needed.
Whenever the discussion turns to energy storage, time becomes a central factor. Some grid scale batteries can only supply power for an hour. Others can do so for 3 – 4 hours. A pumped hydro facility can continue to provide electricity until the water to spin the turbines runs out.
Pumped hydro or battery storage — which is better? The answer is, “It depends.” In the final analysis, anything that makes renewable energy more commercially viable is a welcome step forward toward a zero carbon future.