PUMP IT UP. How Pumped Hydro will save us all

 In News

“Put down your glasses!” “Shut the gate, the horse has bolted!” I can think of no better way to describe the sheer momentum of change in the energy game than by using these old horse racing terms. There is no stopping the revolution, there is no catching that horse. More renewable energy records broken in 2017 than at any time in history. January 2018 rooftop solar uptake – new record! What other new measures will be created this year? New wind record? New battery storage record? New employment record? Oh, the unbridled enthusiasm of the sector. The potentialities, the theories and concepts being realised, the rhetoric being thrown around.

For those of us working in the eye of the maelstrom of revolution, its very easy to assume everyone else shares our excitement and understands the terms of the game. “Pumped Hydro Storage” is one of those terms. What the hell is that? Doesn’t primary school science tell us hydro electricity is water going downhill, under gravity, to turn turbines to make power. Isn’t the Snowy Mountains hydro thingie just that? So why pumped? Pumped where? Doesn’t gravity work any more? And what mean you storage? Batteries?

Actually, no. With so much press lately about solar and battery storage, big battery storage, behind the meter storage etc it’s reasonable to assume Pumped Hydro Storage may mean let the water run, turn the turbines, make the juice, fill the batteries, right. In fact, this particular renewable energy model uses no batteries. The word ‘storage’ in this instance means running the water at night to make power – at night. Let me surmise this beautiful, elegant, self-contained and overlooked piece of tech. Think small. Think 2 reservoirs, one higher than the other, anything from 100 metres to 600 metres drop. Use wind and solar during the day (cheap power) to pump the lower basins water up to the other. At night, when there is no solar power, whoosh, let the water drop to turn the turbines to make cheap power. Rinse, repeat. Maybe, if there is not enough wind and solar power generated throughout the day, the facility may need to draw from the grid to get the H2O up the hill. Perfect world is a gorgeous little power plant working in a closed loop, wind and solar power plants feeding the pumps, the ‘storage’ or tumbling water that kicks in after 4pm each day helps with grid demand management and possible frequency control. Elegant, proven and inexpensive.

Now, I’m no expert but I recently read a stat that suggested 14 of these pumped hydro plants strategically placed around Australia can supply 100% renewable energy to the Aussie grid. I also read a tenacious chap from the ANU has identified over 22,000 suitable sites around the country. 14! 22,000! Is all this too good to be true? There has to be a catch.

Lots of catches, actually. The biggest – political will. Enough said. Another, on who’s land will these things be built? The politics of water management looms large also. What will they cost? Will it even work?

Of course it works. How else did the mill stone in the millhouse over the bubbling brook grind the wheat to make the bread all those centuries ago? In fact, the pumped hydro model has been in operation around the world since the 1920’s. I guess the miracle of coal fired electricity in the mid 20th century pushed old fashioned water fed electricity generation into the background. And it’s only now we are staring into the looming apocalypse, the old may become new again. The pumped hydro plants in the USA generate only 2% of that countries energy needs, so I’d be reluctant to look to that nation for inspiration.

Turnbull’s $6-12Billion, 6-10 years Snowy 2.0 project aside, costs associated with pumped hydro storage plants are certainly competitive when weighed against wind or solar plants and become no-brainers when the average shelf life of a PHES plant is at least 50 years and operating costs of only a few cents per kW/h. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, nobody actually talks about coal anymore – that thing became more expensive than renewables way back in 2017 sometime.

So here’s a tantalising mental image – the worlds driest continent generating more than it needs in 100% pure, clean, electricity via 20 pumped hydro storage power plants scattered strategically around the country, pumps operating courtesy of solar panels and wind turbines. Imagine water being Australia’s energy saviour.


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