The Boring Company + Pumped Hydro: Proposal For Elon Musk — CleanTech Talk

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In this episode of our CleanTech Talk podcast interview series, Zach Shahan is back again with Michael Barnard, Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and CleanTechnica contributor, to talk about one solution to current energy storage limitations: closed-loop pump storage hydropower. You can listen to the full conversation in the embedded player below. Below that embedded SoundCloud player is a brief summary of the topics covered, but tune into the podcast to follow the full discussion.

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When most people think of pumped storage, they think of putting a dam on a river and pumping water from below the dam to the top. In fact, as Mike explains, putting a dam on a river has huge environmental impacts, including changes in upstream and downstream ecosystems and carbon dioxide emissions from decomposing vegetation. Instead of blocking a river, closed-loop pumped-storage hydropower significantly reduces environmental impacts and dissipates much of the controversy surrounding hydropower and dams. Furthermore, Mike believes that for closed-loop pumped-storage hydropower, there is a hundred times more resource potential than our storage needs globally.

Image courtesy Department of Energy

Closed-loop pump storage hydropower is, as the Department of Energy describes, “a configuration of two water reservoirs at different elevations that can generate power (discharge) as water moves down through a turbine; this draws power as it pumps water (recharge) to the upper reservoir.” When the process is “closed loop,” these reservoirs are not connected to an “outside body of water.”

Mike’s big pitch to Elon Musk? Take Tesla’s energy storage work and combine it with the mining capabilities of The Boring Company. Mike believes this could be very complementary to the work Musk is already doing when it comes to the lithium-ion battery energy storage. Mike explains that if Musk leverages these two companies and gets into these systems, he could provide jobs for coal workers who would be well-suited to transition into these roles. Pumped-storage hydropower means they would still be working in rock, building reservoirs, dams and tunnels. Also, Mike notes that many of the places that coal miners live are also hilly or mountainous regions that could be the right geography for these systems.

Mike explains that Musk’s community has deep expertise in geotectonics, drilling, and tunnel-boring machines, plus an energy storage company. This overlap, Mike said, provides an interesting overlap that could prove conducive to successfully developing pumped hydropower systems. This trifecta of coal workers, Tesla energy storage products, and The Boring Company drilling tunnels already exists — so why aren’t more people doing this?

The two discuss the current challenges to these systems, including limitations of current tunnel-boring machines and regulatory barriers. In the USA, regulatory approvals even under an official expedited process still require three separate federal agencies to sign off before state regulatory concerns are addressed, according to Mike. This process, he said, takes 4 years and $15 million — the expedited, cheaper process. Then, the process of tunneling through rock takes a couple of years in itself, and Mike says this time commitment is outside the planning timelines of many states.

As Zach asks, “Is there any light at the end of the pumped hydro tunnel?” Mike explores some technology in the mining industry, such as oscillating disk technology. There are also promising stories out of Australia, where he believes the future of closed-loop pumped storage hydropower is already taking place. Ultimately, Mike hopes that Elon Musk will take Tesla Energy and The Boring Company and channel their strengths to employ old coal workers and solve the storage problem at a great profit for the United States and world.

To hear more on these topics, as well as hear Mike and Zach talk about what this technology could do on Mars, listen to the show!

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