Pumped hydro energy storage in Europe and beyond

What's happening in pumped hydro storage in Europe and globally? Photo credit: Nam Ngum pumped storage plant, Alstom
What's happening in pumped hydro storage in Europe and globally? Photo credit: Nam Ngum pumped storage plant, Alstom
What's happening in pumped hydro storage in Europe and globally? Photo credit: Nam Ngum pumped storage plant, Alstom

What’s happening in pumped hydro storage in Europe and the rest of the world? Photo credit: Nam Ngum Pumped Storage Plant, Alstom

Thanks to its massive investment requirements and vast geographical impact, gigawatt-scale pumped hydro storage had fallen out of favour in many parts of the world.This includes Europe, where over 120 existing major projects, many built in the technology’s hey-day of the 60s and 70s, still make the region by far the biggest contributor to global pumped-hydro energy storage (PHES) from existing installations.

Ironically enough, it is environmental concerns more than capital costs that have slowed down the adoption of pumped hydro, just when a surge in environmentally-friendly energy has made the need for grid-scale storage increasingly attractive and necessary.

Lobbying for large-scale storage

One organisation that is trying to re-ignite enthusiasm for both pumped storage and large-scale compressed air energy storage (CAES) is stoRE, a European Union-backed body seeking to overcome objections to energy storage mega-projects across the continent.

Lobbying for strategic, pan-European energy storage goals, stoRE also takes a look at the environmental impact of CAES and PHES, in order to allay fears about the location of new projects, principally in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland and Spain.

If it can be shown that environmental concerns are overblown and an unnecessary impediment to construction, argues stoRE, it can lobby for more CAES and PHES-friendly legislation.

Sure steps to more pumped storage

In a report the organisation also makes the economic case for renewed large-scale energy storage through increasing market certainty for developers, which are currently loathe to invest in new projects without agreed legislative guarantees. The report found:

  • Pumped-hydro energy storage is exempt from European funding aimed at encouraging the use of energy storage.
  • Harmonisation and transparency in the European energy market would benefit energy storage.
  • The benefits of energy storage are not being taken into account by regulators.

Some cause for celebration

StoRE is currently looking into initiatives to stimulate PHES and CAES on a country-by-country basis. Meanwhile, there is some indication that pumped storage at least is enjoying a new lease of life.

In the European Union (EU), a variety of projects are under construction, with half a dozen in renewable-rich Portugal, totalling over 2GW of energy storage.

Still in the planning stages are a number of schemes in Scotland, Ireland, Spain and Italy, plus non-EU Austria, totalling another 4GW, subject to planning permission and other obstacles.

A European success story

The rosiest picture for European PHES is outside of the European Union.

Switzerland seems to be having a pumped hydro building bonanza right now, with a clutch of projects under construction, totalling around 4GW, twice that of all the current projects in the EU put together.

The country has both economic and geographical advantages over some other territories. In addition, several of these projects are underground, a great way to avoid NIMBY-ism if you have the right geology.

Looking East and West for inspiration

But the clear winner in pumped storage at the current time is China. The People’s Republic has notched up a staggering 10.4GW currently under construction.

On reflection, this is not altogether surprising, given the country’s vast and controversial damming programme.

What’s more, while there may be red tape in China, once a decision has been made by the Party functionaries public opinion is not a factor. And, until recently at least, environmental issues have scarcely had any braking effect on industrial expansion at all.

In the wake of its nuclear turmoil, Japan has also made a considerable commitment, with around 3.3GW of PHES currently under construction.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific there is some cause for optimism.

Although there are few, if any, projects under construction in the US right now, there are a number of schemes currently under proposal, totalling 4GW shared between Nevada, California, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Written by Mike Stone

1 Comment on "Pumped hydro energy storage in Europe and beyond"

  1. World’s biggest-ever pumped-storage hydro-scheme, for Scotland?

    “The maximum potential energy which could be stored by such a scheme is colossal – about 6800 Gigawatt-hours – or 283 Gigawatt-days – enough capacity to balance and back-up the intermittent renewable energy generators such as wind and solar power for the whole of Europe!”

    Scottish Scientist
    Independent Scientific Adviser for Scotland

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