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Pumped Hydro Social License, Pt 1: Wind Energy Experience Says Don’t Expect You Have Full Approval

One of the key take aways from the wind industry experience is that assuming that you have social license because of the virtuousness and safety of an electrical generation technology is a big mistake.

As part of my ongoing engagement in pumped hydro storage, I recently introduced the developer of a US pumped hydro storage project, Tracy Livingston, to a leading clean economy and social license firm CEO I collaborate with occasionally, Mike Casey of Tigercomm. Casey and his firm had performed an interesting study on clean energy companies and social media patterns that CleanTechnica published on at the beginning of 2019. They had a deep and rich conversation on the subject, one worth recounting the highlights of.

This is part one of a two-parter on the subject of social license and pumped hydro. It covers the scale, a perspective from the wind industry, and a basic problem of public lack of knowledge. The second article covers water rights, dam safety, and likely disinformation campaigns.

What is social license?

“The Social License has been defined as existing when a project has the ongoing approval within the local community and other stakeholders, ongoing approval or broad social acceptance and, most frequently, as ongoing acceptance”

Continental US Map of preliminary permits for pumped storage

Image courtesy ferc.gov

That ongoing approval isn’t automatic and it’s more immediately relevant than you might think. A 2015 US DOE report to Congress on pumped hydro had the following to say:

“In the United States, there are currently 40 pumped storage plants in operation with a combined capacity of 22 gigawatts (GW), accounting for 95 percent of all energy storage capacity in the power grid. At present, there are about 50 proposed projects that could add more than 40 GW of new storage capacity.”

My assessment of future grid storage is that lithium-ion batteries will dominate short term storage for grid balancing, and it will overlap with flow batteries which will provide next day storage, and that will overlap with pumped hydro storage which will provide 1-21 day storage. Of course, the roughly 20 TWh of rolling batteries by 2050 we’ll call cars and trucks will be available for demand management and vehicle-to-grid storage as well, so they’ll be in the mix too.

The recent Australian study plus the number of projects already working through permitting with FERC in the United States make it clear that pumped storage hydro locations will be developed, and where they are developed they will often have to fight for local approval.

A comparison to wind energy

From a social license perspective, it’s worth casting our eyes back to the continuing fight over social license for wind energy. I had pro bono roles in that effort around the world. I maintained the BarnardOnWind disinformation debunking site, which was referenced globally by local, national, and international groups fighting for clean energy deployment. I was Senior Fellow – Wind Energy with the Washington-based Energy and Policy Institute for a year. CanWEA named me one of the Friends of Wind one year. One of the first things Zach Shahan, President and Editor of CleanTechnica, asked me to publish on the site was Calling Anti-Renewables Campaigners NIMBYs Is Often Inaccurate And Always Unproductive, a review of the overlapping motivations of mostly anti-wind energy advocates.

Wind energy saw conflict from a variety of sources. Obviously, there were the NIMBYs, the worst of whom were people who liked their rural fantasyland retirement and vacation homes surrounded by unchanging artificial nature. There were the medical scare fantasists, who sincerely — or venally — fought wind energy due to the myth that it harmed people’s health, something debunked in meta-analyses and studies and court cases. There were the people who sincerely or venally fought wind energy due to the mistaken belief that it would make their houses worth less, something debunked in multiple studies covering millions of transactions in several countries.

There were the faux environmentalists, people so wrapped up in preserving a local piece of land and its usually not endangered wildlife that they fought tooth and nail against a form of energy which would prevent climate change harm to land and species. They perverted the mantra of thinking globally and acting locally, instead paying lip service to global issues while attacking local solutions. Birding organizations publish lovely statements in support of climate change and wind energy, then their local chapters prevented it from being built.

Then there were the more insidious forces against wind energy, that weird amalgam of fossil fuel interests and Libertarianism that’s so toxic and prevalent in the US, but which exists elsewhere as well. Climate change-denying right wing economists dipped their toes into energy policy. Libertarians attacked the subsidies flowing to wind energy while ignoring the ongoing subsidies to fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydro electrical generation. Right wing think tanks and ‘thought leaders’ published screeds attacking wind energy.

Of course, wind energy has overcome the negative PR at a global level. While coal and nuclear have been leaving grids around the world, 2018 saw wind energy reach 600 GW of global capacity with a likely additional 60 GW commissioned in 2019. Its costs continue to plummet. Grids with strong wind energy components such as Texas, Germany, and Denmark have seen increased reliability, not decreased reliability.

At a local level, the fight continues. Ontario elected a regressive government in 2018. One of the government’s first actions was to cancel 758 renewable energy contracts without recourse through legislation, something that’s costing major court fees. They cancelled a wind farm in Prince Edward County, a global hotbed of wind energy opposition, when the farm already had 5 of 9 turbines erected. They cancelled another one recently on the spurious grounds that the wind farm would harm bats, when it had passed the rigorous Ontario environmental review process which had ensured that harm would be limited and mitigated. The regressive government overrode its own experts and process for naked political posturing. That government is deeply unpopular in Ontario and Canada, so there’s hope that its worst offenses, which continue to mount, will be reversed starting in the next election cycle.

Pumped hydro storage will see many of these same attacks, and in some cases already is, but it also has unique challenges in this space.

Closed loop pumped hydro public ignorance

Let’s start with the obvious. Pumped hydro storage is being proposed in a world where dams have been demonized and are being torn down, especially in the United States. That country built 84,000 dams, 8,100 of which are considered major. They created new lakes for recreation and have helped irrigate the agriculture of the country. But they also blocked spawning runs for ocean fish, dried up silt into downstream rivers, radically changed the upstream and downstream ecosystems, and are typically dead water that must be fertilized and stocked constantly in order to provide an illusion of life. They block the silt which replenishes farmers fields and in some cases have become bio-accumulators of mercury. Many of them are basically abandoned, aging concrete structures impeding river passage but no longer used or usable for electrical generation.

There’s a big movement in the US to tear down dams. The outdoor empire Patagonia funds a global opposition to new dams and a program to remove existing ones. The documentary on its efforts, DamNation, is inspiring at one level, but problematic at another.

Into this context, closed loop pumped hydro storage walks with a much more innocuous and benign solution which is both regulated and attacked as if it were a proposal for a major dam on a fertile river. As a reminder, the model puts reservoirs on land with no streams or rivers, damming a dry gully in the hills or creating a turkey’s nest circular dam on flatter land, then filling them with water. The reservoirs are tiny compared to river hydro dams, smaller than Central Park in New York. The water that is put into the pumped hydro stays in it, cycling between upper and lower reservoirs, and is lost only due to evaporation. The water itself is the tiniest fraction of the fresh water consumed daily in the United States.

They are trivial to place in areas which avoid nature reserves and endangered species. The Australian global pumped hydro study found 100x the potential resource as required by global needs, and 250x in the US, and that study restricted the sites to places that weren’t in nature reserves of any sort and were close to transmission.

But as I’ve published on the subject and talked to global experts, I’m continually confronted with people in CleanTechnica comments, on Twitter, and on other social media who ignore their tiny footprints and assert that they are horrific environmentally, that they are as damned as river dams.

This ignorance has to be overcome carefully, early and regularly.


This is part one of a two-parter on the subject of social license and pumped hydro. It covers the scale, a perspective from the wind industry, and a basic problem of public lack of knowledge. The second article covers water rights, dam safety, and likely disinformation campaigns.


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Written By

is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc, co-founder of distnc technologies, and Strategic Advisor and Board Observer for Agora Energy Technologies. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. His published analyses of low-carbon technology and policy have been seen in Forbes, Quartz and the Leonardo di Caprio Foundation site. His work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. He's available for consulting and speaking engagements, and Board positions.

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