A Modest Pumped Storage Proposal For Democratic Candidates

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In the past few months, I’ve been going deep on storage. I spent time specifying the quantity and costs of Tesla Powerpack lithium-ion battery storage for a 100,000 square foot carbon neutral greenhouse a client was considering building in Canada’s Prairies. I’ve been working with a flow battery technology innovator in BC (more on that soon). I spent a bunch of time looking at the global pumped hydro storage resource study out of Australia.

Pumped storage hydro resource locations in United States
Pumped hydro storage resource sites map used with permission of RE100 Group, Australian National University

That triggered a series of discussions with a pair of serial energy entrepreneurs and innovators, Tracy Livingston and Tom Conroy of Momentum Energy and Kinetic Power in the States about a pumped hydro site they are developing in New Mexico. Zachary Shahan, CleanTechnica‘s site director, and I talked on the CleanTechnica podcast about pumped hydro and how much sense it made at least superficially for Elon Musk to engage The Boring Company and  Tesla Energy in pumped hydro. That led to a lengthy discussion with a Scottish serial energy entrepreneur, Mark Wilson of Intelligent Land Investments about the three sites he’s developing in that country including one on Loch Ness and the the variances in awareness and regulation globally (more on that later too).

I’ve also spent a bunch of time looking through the leading Democratic Presidential candidates’ climate action plans (tl’dr: Harris best but she’s gone, Warren very good but trends wonkish, Biden good on foreign policy but seriously underfunded, Sanders good on electrification but populist and authoritarian, Yang good on carbon price but bad otherwise, Buttigieg meh and underfunded).

I’ve come to the following conclusions.

Closed loop pumped hydro storage is one of the best grid-scale electricity storage options available

The NREL and other studies make it clear that it’s one of the cheapest forms of storage available, much cheaper than most alternatives. It’s incredibly stable and mature technology, with the first one having been built in the 1890s. There are an awful lot of skilled resources who know how to work rock who are looking for work because coal is dying and it’s a lot more automated than it used to be. It has great characteristics for 1-7 day storage. The Australian study makes it clear that there’s far more resource capacity than is required. They modeled only 300-meter plus head heights close to grid connectivity with limited height dams and found 250 times as much capacity in the US as was needed.

Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford, a Top 100 Climate Influencer and lead of the team that produced the 100% Renewables by 2050 study, assumed pumped hydro in his modeling.

“The LOADMATCH grid-integration model4 then combines the wind and solar resource time series with estimated time series for other WWS generators; hourly load data for each country; capacities for low-cost heat storage (in underground rocks and water), cold storage (in ice and water), electricity storage (in CSP with storage, pumped hydropower, batteries, and hydropower reservoirs), and hydrogen storage; and demand-response to obtain low-cost, zero-load loss grid solutions for each of the 20 grid regions.”

I reached out to Jacobson for his perspective, and he agreed that pumped hydro is under utilized, low cost compared to batteries and has much greater potential than is being exploited at present. He also pointed out that LA is considering converting the Hoover Dam partly into a pumped hydropower station, which is aligned with global trends to leverage hydro on a more on demand vs baseload model.

Australia is the world leader in pumped storage hydro based on discussions I’ve had, with leading academic studies on the subject coming from that country. Per my discussion with my Scottish contact, that tiny UK country with its 5.4 million citizens has more pumped hydro storage in development than the United States does.

Where exactly is the US in all of this?

Regulatory approvals for pumped storage hydro in the United States are nuts

Closed loop pumped storage hydro has small ponds, small dams, doesn’t impede streams, doesn’t impact fish spawning, uses over and over a tiny fraction of the fresh water in the States, doesn’t emit CO2e for decades from anaerobic decomposition under reservoirs and doesn’t involve toxic chemicals. But it’s regulated as if developers were building the Hoover Dam, building several hundred foot dams, blocking rivers, making fish runs disappear, consuming millions of gigaliters of water and polluting large regions.

There’s a legacy reason for this, of course. As part of the New Deal, the now Bureau of Reclamation built a bunch of massive electricity generating dams which are still owned by the federal government. The Bureau is responsible for water resource use in their regions and is the largest wholesaler of water in the States. Most of the irrigation water for agriculture comes from them.

The Power Marketing Administrations under the Department of Energy sell the electricity from the dams, incidentally making the federal government one of the largest suppliers of electricity in the States, something Sanders wants to lean into with his plan for wind and solar.

And of course at one point disaster struck. In 1976 the Teton Dam collapsed as it was being filled for the first time, killing 11 people and 3,000 head of cattle. It had a 310 foot (93 meter) dam stretching 3,100 ft (940 meters) creating a 17-mile long (27 km long) reservoir to be filled with 288,250 acre feet (355,550,000 cubic meters) of water. That’s bigger than Manhattan, for context. The US government lost $400 million between construction costs and claims, with total damage estimates up to $2 billion. That’s about $50 billion in 2019 dollars, which most people would agree is material.

Partly as a result the US Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for dam safety in the US, operating and maintaining some 700 dams around the country.

Let’s compare and contrast that with pumped storage hydro. The example pumped storage facility from the Australian study was a pair of 247 acre (100 hectare reservoirs) with 810 acre feet (1 billion liters) of water. The reservoirs combined are smaller than Central Park in New York and hold about 2.8% of the water. They don’t block rivers, but are built in places with no streams. They don’t damage fish runs, obviously. They don’t divert or provide a lot of water for irrigation. It holds less than a thousandth of the water the US uses every single day but as stated it just reuses it. That examples provides a GWh of storage, which is a nice juicy chunk. If the top or bottom reservoir dam starts giving way, it’s trivial to quickly pump the water into the stable reservoir. When in operation, it doesn’t accumulate mercury as major hydro dams have been known to do. The small scale means that any submerged biomass turns into trivial amounts of anaerobic CO2 and methane. The environment impacts and risks are virtually non-existent.

But it’s regulated as if it’s blocking a major river, threatening fish stocks and could kill dozens or thousands of people. Regulatory approvals require FERC, the Bureau of Reclamation and the US Army Corp of Engineers to all sign off on complex, detailed, lengthy and very expensive approval documentation.

It’s not as if some people in the United States don’t understand this. There’s now a fast path approval process for pumped storage hydro. It only takes 4 years and $7 million USD instead of $8 years and $15 million per my sources. All three federal organizations still have to sign off on it. That’s not really good enough when 2030 is looming.

Pumped storage hydro is invisible to the people in power

I’ve read every word of the leading candidates’ climate action plans, looking at all of their generation and storage plans. I’ve published over 20,000 words of analysis of their plans. Not once do they mention this low-hanging fruit for electricity storage. Some are focused on research for storage. Others talk about bringing the price of electricity storage down to well above the cost per MWh of pumped hydro storage. Many of them talk about opening up federal lands for wind and solar and speeding leasing and regulatory processes for renewable generation.

None of them talk about deploying pumped hydro storage. None of them talk about removing the regulatory headwinds impeding deployment of this low risk, environmentally benign technology. None of them talk about providing rapid leasing of federal lands for pumped hydro storage. Nada. Zip. Silence.

It’s like it’s an invisible child, not only not heard, but not seen.

A challenge to Democratic candidates

Include pumped hydro in your formal climate plans. Commit to streamlining regulatory processes to something remotely sensible for the technology. Commit federal funds and loans. Create state-level storage targets just like the Renewable Portfolio Standards that are informed by the pumped storage resource studies.

Promise to engage coal workers in building pumped storage hydro in their regions. Get those skilled and talented resources working in something that they know, rock. Get coal country votes by promising them work that makes sense to them, work that they are highly skilled at doing already.

Pumped hydro is not the only storage solution. It’s not a magic bullet. But make it a formal and recognized part of your tactics on climate action. We only have until 2030 to make substantial changes. The way the regulatory structure is set up now, pumped hydro will barely have started being built by 2030 if the US is lucky.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 708 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard