US Chairs New Global Energy Storage Cabal, Clean Power Gets Last Laugh

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The lights are still on at thousands of polling places across the nation, but it appears that the US Department of Energy has already declared a winner. If you guessed that clean power is the winner, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. On Election Day, November 3, the Energy Department chaired a new global energy storage consortium called the International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower, which aims to accelerate the clean power trend all over the world. Wait — whatever happened to saving all your coal jobs?

energy storage pumped hydro renewables
The US Department of Energy is chairing a new global energy storage consortium that aims to bring untold numbers of new coal-killing pumped storage hydro projects into being (image via International Hydropower Association).

Et tu, Energy Department?

Yes, about all those coal jobs. President Trump promised to save all your coal jobs in the run-up to Election Day 2016. Two years into his term he forgot about all the coal jobs in favor of all those oil and gas jobs. Too bad for all those coal jobs!

Now here it is Election Day 2020, and the President doesn’t have anything to say about oil and gas jobs, either. I know, right? Shocker! All we’ve been hearing in the weeks leading up to November 3 is something-something-voter-fraud, as if such a thing even exists.

Where were we? Oh right, the Energy Department. Considering the role of energy storage in killing off coal, oil, and natural gas jobs, it’s pretty clear that the Energy Department’s support for the new consortium is way off the Trump message. However, that should come as no surprise.

Ever since the early days of the Trump* administration, the Energy Department has kept one hand busy pointing at squirrels while the other hand stirs the clean tech pot and advocates for climate action, too.

It started with a 2017 Energy Department grid study, reportedly ordered up by the White House, which was supposed to support fossil power generation. However, somehow it ended up endorsing the US wind industry. Everything went downhill from there, at least from the perspective of fossil fuel stakeholders.

US Energy Department Teams Up For Clean Power & Energy Storage

The year 2020 dawned with more bad news, as newly tapped Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette started off his tenure with an all-hands-on-deck energy storage initiative aimed at bringing the next generation of battery technology to the clean power table.

Fast-fowarding a bit, last month the Energy Department launched a new partnership with The Netherlands, providing the US with a global foothold in the emerging area of offshore wind and green hydrogen energy storage.

That brings us up to last week, when news dropped that the Energy Department is participating in the new Global Power System Transformation consortium, which aims to do just what you think it will, with the help of grid operators from various parts of the world including the wind-rich ERCOT system in Texas.

Topping that off, last week the University of California – San Diego also announced the launch of DERConnect, the nation’s first ever plug-and-play microgrid test bed. DERConnect aims to make it easy as pie for grid operators to absorb more distributed energy resources (that’s the DER in DERConnect), including energy storage, EV batteries, and building systems as well as wind and solar arrays. As the school notes, the project builds on its three-year NODES project, which was funded by, you guessed it, the Energy Department.

Pumped Hydro Energy Storage Poised For Global Domination

One must wonder whether or not more coal jobs would have been saved if the President spent less time on the golf course and more time monitoring the goings-on at his own federal agencies, especially when it involves forming global consortia.

Oh well, water under the bridge, so to speak. The new International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower is a project of the International Hydropower Association and is chaired by the US Department of Energy, and it launched today with the participation of the governments of Austria, Brazil, Estonia, Greece, India, Indonesia, Israel, Morocco, Norway, and Switzerland.

If that sounds like kind of a mixed bag of governments, keep in mind that hydropower opportunities are spread unevenly around the globe.

For those of you new to the topic, pumped storage hydropower — aka “water batteries” — refers to a gravity-based system in which water flows from an upper reservoir to a lower reservoir, where it turns turbines to run generators.

In some circumstances the upper reservoir can be fed by its own natural water system, which involves even more gravity. However, much of the future growth in the pumped storage industry will rely on  pumping water from a lower level to the upper reservoir. IHA cites a recent report from the International Renewable Energy Agency, which indicates the potential for more than 60,000 off-river pumped hydro sites globally, with additional opportunities in the area of upgrading existing pumped hydro facilities.

None of this makes much sense if you run the pumps during high electricity demand periods. It makes even less sense if you power the pumps with fossil fuels. However, the game changes with off-peak pumping and renewable energy, and suddenly there you have a gigantic renewable energy storage system.

Who Loves Bulk, Long Duration Energy Storage?

Pumped storage is an old technology, but it fits neatly into the Energy Department’s search for next-generation batteries that can store renewable energy in bulk, over long periods of time.

If you’re wondering why the latest generation of lithium-ion batteries doesn’t make the cut, maybe someday they will. Aside from cost, lifecycle issues and supply chain complications, typical Li-ion battery arrays are only good for a few hours of electricity production and they run out of steam if they lay idle for a while. The Energy Department is seeking new energy storage technology that can replace gas “peaker” plants by providing days’ worth of electricity at the drop of a dime, even after laying idle for periods of time.

Here’s the IHA on that topic:

“Pumped storage hydropower (PSH) is an ideal complement to modern clean energy systems as it can accommodate for the variability and seasonality of fast-growing solar and wind power. It enjoys several distinct advantages over other forms of energy storage due to its long asset life, large storage capacity, low-lifetime cost and reduced dependence on imported raw materials.”

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that the new pumped hydro consortium involves scores of leading global energy and engineering firms devoted to engineering the s*%! out of next-generation pumped hydro systems, with GE among many others.

Leading financial institutions like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are also in on the action, as well as academic institutions such as École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, which frequently pops up on the CleanTechnica radar as EPFL.

The US has also been holding up its end of the technology stick, one example being Energy Department funding for a new cost-cutting design that practically eliminates underground powerhouse construction.

The Energy Department is already eyeballing the potential for pumped hydro to shepherd more wind power into the grid, and there could also be an angle for floating solar panels as well.

Leading up to the new consortium, last year the Energy Department also pumped funds into a suite of new pumped hydro projects, including  one that aims to squeeze energy storage juice from water storage tanks and other infrastructure.

Of course, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Cost, environmental concerns, and other land use issues will narrow down the field of potential sites for new pumped hydro projects.

However, there is still plenty of room for the industry to grow in the US. As of last year, only two dozen or so pumped hydro projects were on the radar of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,  many of which were first authorized decades ago.

The new consortium has also tasked itself with addressing sustainability and environmental issues, so that could help open up the field of possibilities.

Stay tuned for more on that, as the new pumped storage consortium is planning to release a 12-month update in, well, 12 months.

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*Developing story.

Image: International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower steering committee members and observers via International Hydropower Association.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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