Reframing Pumped Hydropower
By: Elliott Jackson, Electrical Engineer, HDR, Inc.
With the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, the American electric grid is set to see a windfall of incentives and investment in wind, solar, geothermal, battery energy storage and hydropower. The Infrastructure Bill includes funding for renewable energy demonstration projects, including $84 million for enhanced geothermal systems, $100 million for wind energy, and $80 million for solar energy. While this is certainly helpful for America to achieve a greener grid and future, it is sure to exacerbate a growing problem the grid has been experiencing since the advent of wind and solar power popularity, which is what to do with the excess energy when more power is produced than is being consumed.
One industry that aims to solve this problem is the battery energy storage industry. They are set to receive $355 million for energy storage demonstration projects and pilot grant programs, $150 million for a long-duration demonstration initiative and joint program, and approximately $825 million for mineral security projects. While the buildout of battery storage shows promise in its ability to offset off-peak generation in small amounts, it is critical that the capacity of America’s energy storage systems match the rate at which more non-dispatchable generation is built.
Thankfully, the hydropower industry was not forgotten in the bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Hydropower is set to receive $125 million for hydroelectric production incentives, $75 million for hydroelectric efficiency improvement incentives, $553 million for hydroelectric resiliency upgrades, and $10 million appropriated in $2 million increments for a pumped storage demonstration project to facilitate long-duration storage of intermittent renewable energy. This last allotment of money mentioned is especially critical for America’s green energy future as it shows a direct acknowledgement of the important role hydropower technology can play as our electric grid is modernized.
Being our nation’s first renewable energy technology, hydropower is not often seen as a technology of the future to most lay people looking in from outside the energy industry. When energy storage technologies are mentioned as the next cutting-edge technology of the renewable energy movement, hydropower is again commonly forgotten about, as most people immediately think of the energy storage they are most familiar with: batteries. Pumped storage facilities, however, not only use technology we have relied on for over a century but have an out of the box energy storage capacity that dwarfs what is currently developed with conventional battery systems. Simply put, pumped storage facilities are the equivalent of giant water batteries. By pumping water upwards into a higher elevation reservoir for future use during times of excess generation from wind, solar, and other non-dispatchable sources, the excess power is converted to potential energy that can be used at later times when the grid experiences an unexpected drop in generation or a rise in demand. As with conventional hydropower, pumped storage systems also provide the benefit of being capable of almost immediate demand response, with units being able to start at rest to generating at full capacity in a matter of minutes.
The recent advances in variable-speed technology have also offered pumped storage projects the ability to provide frequency regulation and ramping services to the grid when operators are pumping or absorbing excess power in the pump mode.
The growing divide between non-dispatchable, variable generation and predictable daily energy demand continues to grow, and while the Infrastructure Bill is sure to make large gains in the buildout of new renewables, this problem is sure to worsen without an equal growth of energy storage systems. Pumped storage is a reliable and proven large-scale energy storage resource that is not currently seeing the same accelerated expansion as conventional battery storage technologies. The benefits of the hydropower industry’s “water batteries” are numerous, and if we are to see the same expansion of this type of hydropower facility, it is imperative that more of the general public begin to think of hydropower as synonymous with the green energy transition that America is quickly approaching.