Seasonal Pumped Hydropower Storage Could Solve the Renewable Energy Storage Challenge

Seasonal pumped storage project and main components. Credit: IIASA

Seasonal pumped hydropower storage (SPHS), an already established yet infrequently used technology, could be an affordable and sustainable solution to store energy and water on an annual scale, according to new IIASA research published in the journal Nature Communications. Compared with other mature storage solutions, such as natural gas, the study shows that there is considerable potential for SPHS to provide highly competitive energy storage costs.

“The energy sectors of most countries are undergoing a transition to renewable energy sources, particularly wind and solar generation,” says IIASA postdoc Julian Hunt, the study lead author. “These sources are intermittent and have seasonal variations, so they need storage alternatives to guarantee that the demand can be met at any time. Short-term energy storage solutions with batteries are underway to resolve intermittency issues, however, the alternative for long-term energy storage that is usually considered to resolve seasonal variations in electricity generation is hydrogen, which is not yet economically competitive.”

Seasonal pumped hydropower storage means pumping water into a deep storage reservoir, built parallel to a major river, during times of high water flow or low energy demand. When water is scarce or energy demand increases, stored water is then released from the reservoir to generate electricity.

The new study is the first to provide a global, high-resolution analysis of the potential and costs for SPHS technology. In their analysis, researchers assessed the theoretical global potential for storing energy and water seasonally with SPHS, focusing on the locations with the highest potential and lowest cost. They also analyzed different scenarios where the storage of energy and water with SPHS could be a viable alternative. The study included topographical, river network and hydrology data, infrastructure cost estimation, and project design optimization, to identify technically feasible candidate sites.

The new study shows that water storage costs with SPHS plants vary from 0.007 to 0.2 US$/m3, long-term energy storage costs vary from 1.8 to 50 US$/MWh and short-term energy storage costs vary from 370 to 600 US$/KW of installed power generation capacity, considering dam, tunnel, turbine, generator, excavation, and land costs. The estimated world energy storage potential below a cost of 50 $/MWh is 17.3 PWh, which is approximately 79% of the world electricity consumption in 2017.

The researchers found that significant potential exists for SPHS around the world, in particular in the lower part of the Himalayas, Andes, Alps, Rocky Mountains, northern part of the Middle East, Ethiopian Highlands, Brazilian Highlands, Central America, East Asia, Papua New Guinea, the Sayan, Yablonoi and Stanovoy mountain ranges in Russia, as well as a number of other locations with smaller potential.

“Concerns about the intermittency and seasonality of wind and solar can be valid, but are also sometimes exaggerated,” says IIASA researcher Edward Byers, a study coauthor. “This study demonstrates that there is an extremely high potential for SPHS to be used across much of the world, providing a readily-available, affordable and sustainable solution to support the transition to sustainable energy systems and overcome real and perceived barriers to high shares of renewable generation.”

The study also addresses some of the potential environmental concerns related to hydropower. Because SPHS reservoirs are deep and constructed parallel to, rather than within the course of a river, the environmental and land use impacts can also be up to 10 to 50 times smaller than traditional hydropower plants.

Hunt says, “With the need for a transition to a more sustainable world with lower CO2 emissions, renewable energies and energy storage will play a major role in the near future. Given the vast untapped and cheap potential of SPHS, it will soon play an important role in storing energy and water on a yearly basis.”

Reference: “Global resource potential of seasonal pumped hydropower storage for energy and water storage” by Julian D. Hunt, Edward Byers, Yoshihide Wada, Simon Parkinson, David E. H. J. Gernaat, Simon Langan, Detlef P. van Vuuren and Keywan Riahi, 19 February 2020, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-14555-y

EnergyGreen EnergyInternational Institute for Applied Systems AnalysisPopularWater
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  • Mike Conley

    There is two year’s worth of energy storage in a nuclear reactor’s core. It’s called “fuel.”

    What we need to do is transition to carbon-free fuel, not to fuel-free systems like wind and solar, backed up by yet another renewable (hydro.) That’s a Rube Goldberg scheme, in an attempt to make a collection of fuel-free systems mimic a fueled system.

    Grid-scale renewables amounts to a bad engineering solution to a “problem” that’s already been solved.

    • Josep

      The fuels you seem to have in mind are Uranium and Plutonium. They look relatively friendly because they are used only for a tiny amount of our energy needs. But running the economy on fission power plants would bring a collection of unbearable problems.

  • Michael Selevitch

    That’s funny, not fuel? Tell that to the people that get their power from…
    Presently, Hoover Dam can produce over 2,000 megawatts of capacity and a yearly average generation of 4.5 billion kilowatt hours to serve the annual electrical needs of nearly 8 million people in Arizona, southern California, and southern Nevada.

  • Dismayed

    The economics of nuclear are awful. And there isn’t a long-term wate storage facility on the US. So, no, that isn’t an option.

  • David Stein

    There is a pumped storage method that doesn’t have many of the drawbacks of SPHS, they are called Gravity Power Modules. They use vertical TBMs to bore vehicle shafts. A large piston comprised mainly of rocks and concrete rides in the shaft. A small parallel shaft leads from the bottom of the main shaft up to the pump/turbine near the surface then to the top of the sealed main shaft. After initial filling with water, no additional water is ever used. Totally underground, little to no land required (you could put a park over it). Can be sited almost anywhere. No evaporative losses. Can be cycled as often as needed. Fast ramp times, even faster if coupled with powerpacks. Unlimited scalability. Economical.

  • gary berti

    Pumped storage suffers from the multitude of changes coming to the energy landscape. Batteries, charging autos (at night), and distributed solar production, not to mention wind power, will continue to minimize the need for pumped storage. The economics, alone, of pumping water uphill should be self-evident. Every time I see your articles on this, I realize that your opinion seems more and more biased toward pumped storage. Why?

  • John Dolza

    Mike, nuclear has this cost problem that’s pretty insane. Especially when you include.the long term cost of spent fuel internment. Last I heard, you could drink water, it’s plentiful, and the engineering challenges are trivial. @

  • V.V.P.Narasimham

    SHPS is a good option when the reservior area is quite large. But in most of the cases due to large scale settlment of humans along reservior banks. it is having disadvantge of large scale dispalcement of people for accomdating additional reservior. So such type of scheme may not be feasible for most of the countries. Further, excavation and associated engg. works shall have additional cost implication on the scheme.