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Energy Storage Innovation: Niagara Pumped Storage System

Roger Faulkner's picture
President Rethink Technologies, INC
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niagra fallsIn 2009 I presented a paper evaluating the largest potential pumped storage opportunity anywhere in North America: the Lake Erie/Lake Ontario System. The proposed Isthmus of Niagara project (“Niagara Pumped Storage”) does not require that any dry land be flooded (except for minor canal surface area) to implement, and so would arguably have much less environmental impact than a comparable project based on new reservoirs. Niagara pumped storage is in essence an energy storage scheme that is capable of providing enough storage capacity to harmonize the available power from wind, tidal, and solar sources with power demand in a large portion of the US and Canada. Although the storage capacity at Niagara could be devoted to economic dispatch of nuclear and run-of-river hydro power, this potential use for pumped storage between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario would fail to utilize the unique potential for energy storage over much longer periods than any other pumped storage facility in the world.

The average 99.4 meter difference of elevation between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined with their large surface area would provide 1300 gigawatt-hours of stored energy (at 70% overall efficiency) if the level in Lake Ontario is allowed to vary by 30 cm during a charge/discharge cycle (less than the typical seasonal variation of Lake Ontario’s level, which is about 45 cm).  I defined project characteristics for a 10 GW pumped storage facility. Although it would be a massive engineering project to realize the storage potential of these lakes, the benefits for not having to purchase the land, create the reservoirs, and flood dry land for the pumped storage project are very large advantages of the scheme. The proposed facility would be uniquely able to deal with peak demand or low wind periods lasting for more than a week. This presentation to the Electricity Storage Association National meeting in May 2009 also described the natural synergism of Niagara Pumped Storage with an HVDC supergrid. It was based on an earlier grant application to NYSERDA (New York state Energy Research and Development Authority).

There is no question that this scheme would work; though it is very big, it is completely conventional. Imre Gyuk, who was then and still is now in charge of the US Department of Energy’s energy storage initiative pulled me aside at cocktail hour at the conference and said “Interesting idea…and it would work…but it will never happen!” In that regard, it is rather like the carbon tax; something we all know could really work, but which conventional wisdom says is completely impossible politically. I personally think we are heading for a real climate crisis which will upset notions of what is feasible politically.

The Niagara Pumped Storage scheme makes no sense unless it is part of a continental scale North American supergrid. I am not working to move the NPS concept forward any more, but perhaps it will spark the imagination of someone else out there. When the true implications of climate change become obvious, and even the naysayers can no longer defend doing nothing, big ideas like this may suddenly become politically feasible. Just for a hint of the scale; this scheme implies sloshing a flow between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario that exceeds the flow of the Columbia River (but less than the Mississippi)…really big hydro-engineering!

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Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 30, 2013

but it will never happen!

This is a great idea that would probably be inevitable if we were committed to creating a 90%+ renewable energy system.

The important thing for people to understand is that, at least today, at low penetration variable renewables cost somewhat more than fossil fuels (in fact within the likely range of external costs).  Renewable energy that has been cycled in and out of an energy storage system costs much more than fossil fuels.  We may have enough political will to buy the low penetration renewables, but the storage systems are a much bigger hurdle.

On the other hand, nuclear power, hydro, and geothermal energy also costs somewhat more than fossil fuel.  Because these are baseload energy sources (and big-hydro is dispatchable, which is even better), they can grow to much larger penetrations before energy storage becomes necessary.  Hence it is likely that society will burn much less fossil fuel using a nuclear/baseload-rich portfolio than with one that is rich in variable renewables.

Roger Faulkner's picture
Roger Faulkner on Mar 31, 2013

I’ve been “thinking backwards” in the sense that I envision scenarios that could yield a carbon-free electrical energy fututure, and figure out the pieces of the puzzle that need to be solved to enable these future scenarios. There are in fact many ways to solve this puzzle, including a high diversity approach with wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, ocean energy, or an energy future dominated by a few technologies.

In all cases, my thinking has focused on options that are not yet part of the conversation, like this post, or the idea I raised in a comment on the Update on Small Modular Reactor Development in which I mentioned siting of small nuclear reactors in submarine hulls. Rising above all this is the supergrid concept, which makes all other electrical energy technologies work better, by allowing a continental-scale electricity market. I have made this the focus of my activism and my entrepreneurial work; and I believe it is the unifying technology that binds everything else together. It is also big and expensive and technically challenging, butI have made it my cause.

In my blog posts here, I intend to reveal some interesting ideas like these that should be part of the conversation but are not, while saving my entreptreneurial fire for things that lie on the direct track towards the supergrid. I hope you will read the series of posts I plan on transmission technology over the coming weeks, and check out my comments on other posts too.

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