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Pumped Hydro Social License, Pt 2: The Usual Suspects Will Raise The Usual Fears That Must Be Countered Early

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As part of my ongoing engagement in pumped hydro storage, I recently introduced the developer of a US pumped hydro storage project, Tracy Livinston, 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 two of a short series on the subject of social license and pumped hydro. The first article covered the scale, a perspective from the wind industry, and a basic problem of public lack of knowledge. This piece covers water rights, dam safety, and likely disinformation campaigns from the usual suspects.

Water rights & arid sites

A major theme of Casey and Livingston’s discussion, as well as the discussion between the Australian floating solar expert Phil Connor and Livingston, was about water in the American southwest. The Colorado River has a long history of ugly fights over water rights. It’s been drought-plagued for its entire existence and is mostly uninhabitable without both fresh water and cheap electricity for air conditioning. Further, climate change is making these problems worse.

The two dry gully reservoirs Livingston and his firm are targeting for his development are going to be filled with water pumped overland from a nearby river, and topped up as evaporation removes water from the system. That’s inexpensive compared to the alternatives of evaporation covers such as floating plastic balls or floating solar, but social license and water are tightly coupled in the southwestern US, as they are around the Australian Darling River.

Water rights aren’t a social license issue in Scotland, where the three sites being developed by Mark Wilson of Intelligent Land Investments use existing lochs as the lower reservoir and build new reservoirs above them in the hills. Originally they had hoped to use existing lochs for both upper and lower reservoirs, but couldn’t find good sites so reverted to building new reservoirs. Scotland has much more fresh water and much less land than Australia or the United States, so it doesn’t have the history of concerns.

Dam safety

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t social license issues. Wilson and his firm developed wind farms and established a business model of listing all constraints and then avoiding them in siting choices to avoid issues. They’ve continued that process with pumped hydro, with about 300 factors that they maintain information on for Scotland’s regions that enabled them to find the most propitious sites.

But still, the company’s Loch Ness siting was challenged. As a local approval board meeting was occurring, a UK dam had burst and a village evacuated.

Wilson had to cut short his vacation to handle the concerns, pointing out that there was much less water in the upper reservoir, that it could be emptied through the pump to safe levels in 2 hours and completely emptied in six.

Image of Oroville Dam spillway failure courtesy California Government
Image of Oroville Dam spillway failure courtesy California Government

In the United States, the Oroville Dam spillway failure prompted the evacuation of 180,000 people and dominated news cycles. The US Dam Safety Organization points out that every state has had dam failures.

Safety isn’t actually a big concern for closed loop pumped hydro. If one of the reservoirs is in trouble, the water can simply be pumped into the other. Most of the dam failures are on rivers and are related to overtopping due to lots of upstream precipitation, but dry gully and turkey’s nest closed loop pumped hydro reservoirs aren’t built in catchment areas for vast regions. That doesn’t mean that it won’t need to get ahead of safety concerns from a social license perspective.

In Australia, a different social license problem is playing out, one that I’ve now received mail on from an irate Australian who claimed it was environmentally devastating. The Snow 2.0 project isn’t even going to build new reservoirs. Upper and lower reservoirs were built for hydro electric purposes decades ago, with 700 meters of vertical distance between them. The plan is to link them with tunnels, placing the pumps and generating facilities deep underground.

But it’s under a national park in New South Wales, so despite no new reservoirs and the tunnels and pumps being hundreds of meters underground, many Australians are up in arms about it. It’s hard to imagine 27 km of tunnels hundreds of meters underground being a large concern, but never underestimate the ability of people to lack perspective.

More of a concern for Snowy 2.0 is ballooning costs and significant engineering criticisms that suggest it will provide half of the energy claimed. In other words, the economics don’t make sense for this location. However, $10 billion megaprojects take on a life of their own.

Regulatory & financing delays

Pumped hydro storage sites are big capital projects. The four sites being developed by two firms I’ve spoken with have capital costs closing in on $5 billion between them, and even with existing reservoirs Snowy 2.0 is going to be close to $10 billion AUD in the end.

The cost of gaining financing and building projects is significant. Both the US and Scottish developers I’m engaged with are lobbying governmental organizations to gain political license at the sub-national and national level, and to create secure financing models that support pumped hydro. At present in the UK, nuclear and carbon capture and sequestration projects are included in the regulatory asset base (RAB) category for monopoly infrastructure per my Scottish contact, but pumped hydro storage is excluded.

Regulatory processes and financing are both subject to delays if there are motivated anti-project groups bringing forward opposition and lawsuits. Strong social license efforts early can substantially smooth this, especially with local communities.

Professional protestors

As Casey says, there are professional and semi-professional anti-renewables protestors that move from project to project and region to region, whipping up anti-wind or -transmission sentiment where ever they go, selling various forms of services to local groups. We discussed one, a Libertarian-influenced gadfly in Michigan, who has been attacking both wind and transmission projects across the midwestern United States. Certainly a trio of poorly credentialed medical professionals — a Australian ex-family doctor, a Canadian retired pharmacist, and an American pediatrician — have whipped up anti-wind energy fears in every English speaking country in the world with their scurrilous and nonsensical attacks on wind energy and health, often being funded to travel to other countries or regions, or to speak via Skype to local groups.

These semi-professional protestors don’t limit themselves to one technology. They end up protesting whatever they can and extending their factless concerns to other spaces. Certainly one Portuguese ‘researcher’ has spent decades pushing the idea that infrasound causes a fictitious disease, one that she and her team attempted first to attach to the flight crews and then extended to wind energy. That’s all focused on workplace health and safety revenues that she and her co-conspirator try to gain, as far as I can tell.

The combination suggests that these irritants to progress will drum up fallacious fear, uncertainty, and doubt about pumped hydro as well. They’ve never shown any attachment to reality before or any particular bounds on what they are willing to say and do, so undoubtedly they’ll create problems for pumped hydro just as they have for wind, solar, hydro and transmission projects. Oddly, they never seem to be protesting coal, gas, or pipeline projects.

Pro-nuclear attacks

There’s an hilarious irony around this one. The vast majority of pumped storage that was built globally was developed for nuclear and to a lesser extent coal plants, to balance their relatively fixed capacities and massive synchronous generators which go on and off the grid in very large chunks. Certainly that was the case in California and Ontario, both sub-national jurisdictions that built pumped hydro specifically to balance nuclear.

But that won’t stop a lot of disinformation about pumped hydro from being spread by the usual suspects. The one who springs to mind immediately is Michael Shellenberger. I’ve debunked his anti-renewables, pro-nuclear cherrypicking a few times. In one piece, I pointed out the many errors in his perspective on Germany. In another, I pointed out why his attacks on wind energy safety were so disingenuous, along with his rhetoric on fear of nuclear. In another, I provide a longer term perspective on why it was possible to reasonably conclude in 2008 that nuclear was part of the solution, but that the past decade had disproven that rather starkly.

This doesn’t stop Shellenberger, as he appears to be immune to empirical evidence and criticism. In fact, in one of his widely disseminated — on the right and among nuclear fans — articles and TedX talks this year he says more inane things. Despite the pumped hydro and lithium-ion successes globally, he claims that there are no foreseeable grid storage solutions. He claims the lack of storage is one of the many problems that make nuclear inevitable, oblivious to irony as well as fact.

So when he catches on to pumped hydro, he’ll likely invent reasons why this 130-year-old technology that’s been essential to nuclear couldn’t possibly be used with renewables. He’ll spread more anti-renewables disinformation in aid of the technology he committed to when it was viable to think it had a future. It’s unclear why he’s refusing to change as reality provides more and more data, but he has a brand and he’s riding it.

Fossil fuel disinformation

And, of course, the fossil fuel anti-renewables campaigns will end up attacking pumped hydro as it becomes more popular. It will cut into their ability to generate revenue and profits by burning coal and gas for electricity, so it’s going to be attacked. There’s no doubt of that. The funding that the fossil fuel industry has and their willingness to fight the bad fight is boundless.

Social license must be built, not assumed

One of the key takeaways 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. If opposition is allowed to define the terms of the discussion and establish a consensus against a project, it’s a very long uphill battle to fight through the nonsense.

For expensive projects like pumped hydro storage, it makes sense to start spending time and effort on pumped hydro social license very early in the multi-year development process.

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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 ( , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 646 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard