New love for US pumped hydro?

The pumped hydro project on El Hierro, Spain, is failing to meet expectations. The US faces a glut of applications for similar projects, which will face challenges of their own. Pic: Animam.photography.

The pumped hydro project on El Hierro, Spain, is not meeting expectations. The US faces a glut of applications for similar projects, which will face challenges of their own. Pic: Animam.photography.

By Jason Deign

Pumped hydro, the forgotten granddaddy of energy storage, seems back in fashion: records show 19 new project applications were filed in the US this year.

An analysis of permit application records held by the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) shows 18 of the 19 permits requested this year are from one company: Merchant Hydro Developers in Pennsylvania.

Of the 18 projects proposed by Merchant Hydro, all but one are based on closed-loop pumped hydro systems.

And all but one are due to be built in Pennsylvania, to compete with battery storage and other technologies for ancillary services provision in the PJM Interconnection electricity market, one of the largest in the world.

Merchant Hydro’s applications sum almost 1.6GW of capacity, with proposed sizes ranging from 230MW for a closed-loop plant at Richmondale to 32MW for the only non-Pennsylvania project, in Allamuchy, New Jersey.

Pumped hydro seeking FERC approval in 2016

The projects are in addition to 869MW of pumped hydro storage that Merchant Hydro sought FERC approval for in 2016.

The 2016 applications were spread across three other Pennsylvania locations: 400MW in Shanandoah, 297MW in Rattlin Run and 172MW in Panther.

The Merchant Hydro Developers website shows the company is intent on using pumped hydro to tap into the lucrative PJM ancillary services market.

“Merchant Hydro Developers is focused on installing a fleet of distributed pumped storage facilities across PJM’s footprint, capable of participating in PJM’s capacity and ancillary markets,” says the company.

“Our mission directly supports the … Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy and the PJM Interconnection’s efforts to deploy and financially integrate energy storage into the grid.” 

Using supercomputing to locate formations

The company also claims to have “leveraged supercomputing power and an innovative concept to locate all geologic formations capable producing economically viable pumped storage facilities.”

It remains to be seen how many of the Merchant Hydro projects will make it through to commissioning, but the fact remains that the company is reinvigorating an energy storage segment that has recently been on the wane.

Aside from the Merchant Hydro projects, the FERC is only considering six other proposals, from as many companies.

The proposals total almost 3.9GW of capacity and are each in a different US state, with 1.2GW each slated for Oklahoma and South Dakota, 600MW in Arkansas, 500MW in Kentucky, 380MW in California and 500kW in Nevada.

“The applications are asking FERC to approve preliminary permits to allow the companies to do a detailed feasibility analysis of the hydro projects on specific sites,” reported PA Environment Digest this month. 

Studies costing $200,000 or more

“Merchant Hydro said these studies are estimated to cost from USD$188,000 to $200,000 or more, depending on the facility, and take a year to complete.”

The figures show how getting pumped hydro plants built is a costly and time-consuming process.

According to the US Department of Energy’s Energy Storage Database, although America has more than 22.5GW of pumped hydro capacity in operation, only two new projects are currently under contract.

The largest of these, a 1.3GW plant in California, has been under development for more than two decades.

Last November the project’s fortunes took a turn for the better after Florida-based renewable energy giant NextEra Energy Resources said it was working alongside owner Eagle Crest Energy Company to develop the plant. 

Significant opposition from conservationists

However, there is still significant opposition to the project, not least from conservationists who question where the plant, which is to be built on desert land next to the Joshua Tree National Park, will get its water from.

The second project, the 400MW Gordon Butte storage, got a license from FERC in December 2016 after a 14-month wait. “Now we’re talking to financing partners,” said a source close to the project.

The developer, Absaroka Energy, has appointed the Montreal, Canada-based engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractor SNC-Lavalin to lead a project team including Barnard Construction and GE Renewable Energy.

The companies are performing a plant analysis to develop an EPC term sheet soon this year. 

A three-year construction period

Power-purchase agreement offtake discussions are expected to begin this summer, with a three-year construction period slated to start at the beginning of next year. If all goes well, Gordon Butte will go live in 2021 or 2022.

While things are looking up for Absaroka, it is worth noting that the origins of the company lie with a firm called Grasslands Renewable Energy, which in 2010 was trying to get a FERC permit for a 350MW pumped hydro project.

That project fell by the wayside.

And with other energy storage technologies developing so quickly today, there is a big question mark over how many other pumped hydro proposals will also fail, no matter how many end up with FERC approval.

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