In September, the European Commission in Brussels proposed an ambitious new goal for renewable energy in the region: a 55% reduction in greenhouses gases by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) to put Europe on track toward climate neutrality by 2050.
To get there, EU countries are going to have to accelerate their efforts around renewable energy. Much of that will be in the form of solar panels and wind farms (which combined account for 21% of Europe’s total power generation today). But maybe the most crucial player is going to be hydropower — renewable energy generated by gravity and water.
“Hydropower is one of the most reliable and proven sources of generating electricity, with three important attributes: It’s renewable, available on demand, and it can be used to store power,” says Pascal Radue, CEO of GE Renewable Energy’s Hydro Solutions. “This combination is the perfect complement to the growing popularity of solar and wind farms.”
Why? Remember that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. But energy grids need to maintain a delicate balance between supply and demand. In areas with high reliance on renewables, for example, gas-powered plants known as peakers have to be on call to maintain the balance and make sure that the grid doesn’t crash when the wind stops. In the manner of large grid-scale batteries, pumped storage hydro plants provide such balancing and grid services like those supplied by fossil plants, but with even more reactivity and in a sustainable manner without CO2 emissions. In addition, pumped storage plants soak up excess electricity by pumping water to an elevated reservoir and releasing it quickly when demand spikes.
Spinning one way, the turbine becomes a pump, sending water to a reservoir uphill. When power is needed, the water shoots down through a pipe, pulled by gravity, and spins the same turbine in the other direction, activating a generator. The design can produce energy at the drop of a hat when it’s needed and turn off when it’s not. And unlike solar and wind generation, hydro can operate regardless of the weather, day or night. “We need to have very flexible means of injecting power into or removing power from the grid to keep the lights on,” says David Havard, head of advanced offerings in GE’s hydro product management. “That’s what pumped hydro storage provides.”
Today, hydropower facilities supply about 16% of the world’s annual electricity generation — 10% in the U.S. — with a total installed capacity of 1,300 gigawatts (GW), with nearly 16 GW being added last year. Yet, there is currently only about 158 GW of pumped hydro storage capacity at play internationally; another 40 GW is under construction. The more capacity grid operators have access to, the easier it will be for them to balance energy supply and demand as more renewables get mixed into the energy supply. “Grid operators only currently have a few options for long-duration energy storage,” says Eddie Rich, CEO of the International Hydropower Association, “and pumped storage is the only proven and affordable solution applied at scale around the globe.”
©GE Renewable Energy
Take another example: Australia. The country’s abundance of high-quality wind and solar resources is now widely acknowledged and greatly exceeds the amount required to meet domestic electricity demand. Commentators and analysts are increasingly talking about the opportunity this presents for Australia to position itself as a ‘clean energy superpower’, as the world transitions to a lower carbon future and wind and solar PV continue to come down steep cost curves.
While Australia’s endowment of pumped hydro resources is not as widely understood as wind and solar, it is no less impressive, with researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) identifying over 22,000 potential pumped hydro locations across Australia, or roughly 1000x the storage capacity needed to enable a 100% renewable electricity system meeting 100% of domestic electricity demand.
Properly supported, pumped hydro could form the backbone of a reliable, green electricity system that delivers power at globally competitive prices and enables a renaissance of energy intensive Australian industry and exports.
In effect, Pumped hydro offers Australia the opportunity to use the fundamental features of the country’s landform to build a competitive advantage that will serve for generations.
“If we retire fossil fuel generation plants and stop building nuclear, we’re taking away a lot of synchronized and dispatchable generating plants,” says Radue. “What’s left to keep that balance on the grid? Hydro.”
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