Proposed pumped hydroelectric storage in Australia

Over at BraveNewClimate, there are some plans and cost estimates for a large (9 gigawatt) pumped hydroelectric storage facility in Australia. Two reservoirs separated by 875m of elevation would be joined with a 53km pipe. The total estimated cost is $6.6 billion, or about $744 per kilowatt of storage. That is a pretty expensive proposition, given energy prices today. That being said, such storage facilities are likely to be essential for increasing the share of total energy usage that comes from renewables, across the medium-to-long term. Right now, most Australian electricity is generated by burning coal.

I wrote previously about a similar facility in Wales.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

19 thoughts on “Proposed pumped hydroelectric storage in Australia”

  1. Thank you for linking to the article I wrote for the BraveNewClimate web site. I noticed your intro and though I should clarify some of your points for readers who do not read the Revierers’ Comments and my further comments below the article.

    The rated power of the plant would be 8GW not 9GW. The capital cost would be closer to A$15 billion than $6.6 billion, or about $1900/kW.

    An alternative project is being discussed in the comments below the article. This may be more attractive. All the costs that are based on the original estimating methodology need to be increased by about a factor of 2. This is explained in the Reviewers’ Commanents and is being discussed in the comments below the article.

    One of my comments points out that pumped-hydro is not well suited to storing energy supplied from intermittent power suppliers such as wind and solar power. It is well suited to storing energy from base-load power stations such as coal and nuclear.

  2. [P]umped-hydro is not well suited to storing energy supplied from intermittent power suppliers such as wind and solar power

    Why not? Surely there will be times when output from wind farms, solar facilities, etc exceeds demand. Why can’t the excess energy be stored in pumped hydro facilities?

    Also, concentrated solar facilities with molten salt heat storage should be able to operate in a manner that approximates baseload power.

  3. Solar Thermal Systems

    This is cool article I found while doing a project on the storage and transmission of energy. It gives a basic overview of molten salt heat storage and how it can be coupled with a solar collector to create a reliable renewable energy plant, relatively free from the pitfalls of a intermittent energy source.

  4. Hi Milan,

    Thank you for this excellent question. This is an important subject and is widely misunderstood.

    You might like to refer to this comment and to other related comments and discussion here:

    Below is part of the comment linked above:
    Hydro is an excellent mix with intermittent renewables because when the intermittent renewables are generating the hydro does not, so it saves its stored energy (the water stays in the storage reservoir for future use. But this is not the case with pumped hydro. With pumped hydro we need constant, reliable power when the demand on the grid is low. That is from about midnight to about 6am (refer to the last chart in the article above and not the time of low demand). So for this reason alone solar and wind power are totally unsuited to pumped hydro.

    But there is another reason to. As the Reviewer # 1 above pointed out, the power for pumping needs to be purchased at about ¼ the price the power will be sold. Wind power costs about $110/MWh and solar abour $250/MWh, where as the baseload power from coal in the early hours of the morning is probably around $30/MWh. So wind and solar power (and gas) are too expensive for pump storage. The power from pump storage would be sold at peak power rates. (readers will appreciate I am simplifying everything here).

  5. If pumped hydroelectric storage is only useful with coal, it probably makes our climate change problems worse, rather than better.

    Perhaps at this time, the economics of energy supply and demand only favour its usage with coal-fired plants. Eventually, we need to build an energy system based around 100% renewable energy, quite simply because it is the only sort that will never be exhausted. As we approach that point, the prevailing economic conditions will be quite different, and it seems likely that pumped storage will be usefully paired with renewable forms of energy.

  6. Hi Milan,

    Not just coal. Any baseload generation that supplies low-cost electrcity in the early hours of the morning when demand is low is suitable for pump storage. Therefore, nuclear is ideal.

    I doubt renewables, other than hydro for those countries like Canada that are well endoured with hydro ptential, will be economic in the forseable future. On a full life cycle basis they are less renewable than nuclear. Only the fuel is renewable for ‘renewables’. Far more material is required for renewables per MWh generated, than for nuclear. That means more mining, more processing, fabrication, etc. All this is discussed at length, and quantified, on the BNC web site

  7. For a comprehensive discussion, I recommend Peter MacKay’s excellent book Renewable Energy Without the Hot Air, which is available online for free.

    He points out that we only have enough known mineable reserves of uranium to run 136 nuclear power stations for 1,000 years. Already, the world has about 400, cutting that timespan to about 350 years. Build hundreds more reactors, and that date comes even closer. That could be stretched out through future technologies like commercial breeder reactors or the extraction of uranium from seawater, but neither of those has been proven to be economically feasible.

    In the long run, we will need to rely on solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, etc.

  8. That being said, nuclear fission could be an important bridging technology, between the fossil fuel based energy system we have now and the fully renewable system we must eventually build.

    The most important thing humanity should be doing now is aggressively phasing out coal, and refraining from extracting unconventional oil and gas. If nuclear fission can help with that in the next few decades, then it is probably worth accepting the risks of accidents, waste, proliferation, etc that accompany it.

  9. Milan,

    I read David Machay’s excellent book before it was published, and have a very well used and tagged hard copy. I use it al lot on line too. But you would realise, he does not deal with the economics at all, only the the physics, and looks at the absolute theoretical maximum possible energy that could be provided by renewables including lots of doublig up. It basically shows that renewables cannot contribute much of our energy needs in a practical sense. That is well known.

    However, this comment suggests that you probably have not been following the threads and discussion on the BNC web site. Professor Barry Borrok came from the position you are in now, believing in a renewable solution to our energy needs, however he has progressively changed his position over the past year or so. I think you and your readers might gain a lot by having a look at the link I provided in my previous post.

  10. Milan,

    I just noticed you comment about shortage uranium. This is statement is a complete furphy. The Earths contintental crust has as much uranium as tin and zinc. The ocean has enormous quantities of Uranium. The important part of your statement is “enough known mineable reserves”. As we need more, the price rises and we explore for more. Exploration menthods and mining methods improve all the time. This has been going on for the past 10,000 years. You seem to be extending the shortages of fossil fuels to uranium. But why not consider the limitations of the materials used for renewables?

    I’d encourage you do get up to speed on the economics of these options and deal with facts not belief. Crunching the numbers is exactly waht David Mackay’s book advocates.

  11. It is funny how many people can read that book, agree with it, and then continue to disagree with one another about the subject matter.

    It is tautological that our energy system eventually needs to be based on renewables, whether it is in 50 year, 500, or 5000. I agree that nuclear is a promising stopgap technology, but it does not eliminate the need for humanity to ultimately rely on sources of energy that can be relied upon indefinitely.

    One of MacKay’s most interesting conclusions is about the potential for generating electricity from concentrating solar plants in deserts and then transmitting it using high voltage direct current lines. That has huge generation potential, and would be genuinely renewable.

  12. “World power consumption today is 15 000 GW. So the correct statement about power from the Sahara is that today’s consumption could be provided by a 1000 km by 1000 km square in the desert, completely filled with concentrating solar power. That’s four times the area of the UK. And if we are interested in living in an equitable world, we should presumably aim to supply more than today’s consumption. To supply every person in the world with an average European’s power consumption (125 kWh/d), the area required would be two 1000 km by 1000 km squares in the desert.

    Fortunately, the Sahara is not the only desert, so maybe it’s more rele- vant to chop the world into smaller regions, and ask what area is needed in each region’s local desert. So, focusing on Europe, “what area is required in the North Sahara to supply everyone in Europe and North Africa with an average European’s power consumption? Taking the population of Europe and North Africa to be 1 billion, the area required drops to 340 000 km2, which corresponds to a square 600 km by 600 km. This area is equal to one Germany, to 1.4 United Kingdoms, or to 16 Waleses.”

  13. Milan,

    Could I urge you to spend some time on the BNC web site and perhaps contribute there. I suspect you may be building some beliefs that are based on some false premises. You do need to consider economics, and David Mackay does not do that. The cost of solar thermal is prohibitive. The energy density means it will probably never be viable. Have a look at the links I suggested on solar thermal.

  14. The DoE is also exploring another grid technology: superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES). Because current flows unobstructed through a superconductor, once it is fed into one, it will continue flowing for a while without the need to expend energy to nudge it along. SMES systems could one day offer an alternative to lead-acid batteries as a way to store electricity and manage loads across smart grids. But existing SMES prototypes can only store energy for a few minutes at a time. ABB, a Swiss-Swedish conglomerate, has received $4.2m from the DoE to lead an effort to extend this to an hour.

  15. $1 billion pumped hydro scheme would open up NSW grid, backers say

    The Berejiklian government has given accelerated approval status to a billion-dollar pumped hydro project that will unlock twice as much renewable energy investment and reduce grid congestion.

    The venture, backed by Alinta Energy, would generate as much as 600 megawatts of electricity by releasing water between two reservoirs near the Macleay River between Armidale and Kempsey.

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