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The Global Potential of Pumped Storage

image credit: © Julian Jackson
Julian Jackson's picture
Staff Writer, Energy Central BrightGreen PR

Julian Jackson is a writer whose interests encompass business and technology, cryptocurrencies, energy and the environment, as well as photography and film. His portfolio is here:...

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  • Jul 1, 2022

With prices skyrocketing, and countries turning to the dirtiest coal power, is it the time for more pumped storage systems?

The scientific journal, Nature Communications, has produced the first estimate of the global potential for pumped hydropower storage (PHS), using an advanced analysis of the data. Simply put, a PHS reservoir is positioned above a water source: river, lake or reservoir, and when the electricity price is low, water is pumped to the higher reservoir. When the grid needs power, water is released to turn turbines. It is a fast response to increased demand, allows use of spare electricity at off-peak times, and is also a source of fresh water. The drawbacks are that pumped storage plants are expensive to build, and are only feasible in certain geographic conditions: where the terrain is “mountainous” enough to provide a suitable area for the upper reservoir.

Dinorwig Pumped Storage Power Station in Wales,
unobtrusively blended  into the mountainside,
showing the lower reservoir; image: Julian Jackson

Nevertheless, PHS should not be discounted as a viable, proven storage technology. The report calls this “Seasonal Pumped Hydropower Storage” (SPHS) but that seems a misnomer. Pumped storage can work all the year round, depending on the availability of water and the electricity needs of the consumers.

The Nature report says, “SPHS plants have lower land requirements than conventional hydropower dams, for a comparable energy and water storage potential, because the off-river reservoir design permits higher hydraulic heads variations. SPHS can also be attractive to deal with the load problems emerging from electricity consumption and supply seasonal variations and increasing use of intermittent sources of generation.”

The report estimates that the global technical and economic potential for water and energy storage with pumped storage is vast, but with an unequal spatial distribution across the world. Considering all the energy storage projects with the cascade, the total storage capacity is equivalent to 17,325 TWh, or ~79% of the world electricity consumption in 2017.


Graphic:  Seasonal pumped hydropower storage (SPHS) costs and description; credit: Nature Communications

Obviously quite a few of these projects will be impractical: too expensive to build, too far from population centers, or the water is too valuable for other uses, such as irrigation. After removing what the authors considered non-viable projects, the results were: “1457 water storage projects with water storage costs lower than 0.2 US$ m−3 and 1092 energy storage projects with energy storage cost lower than 50 US$ MWh−1.”

The report says, “Conventional hydropower dams have been built in main river channels with the intention of managing water resources and generating low-cost, low-carbon electricity, but often they fragment flow and flood upstream areas. SPHS plants built adjacent to main rivers can provide similar water management and energy storage services while avoiding the large land footprint associated with conventional hydropower dams. This paper has identified where SPHS plants could be built and the associated unit costs for energy and water storage services. The estimated potential is restricted to mountainous regions with reasonable water availability and high hydraulic heads supporting cost-efficient SPHS system design. Significant potential exists 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, with energy storage costs with cascade varying from 1.8 to 50 US$ MWh−1.”

There is considerable potential for these systems to be implemented as a low-emissions storage and load management technology. Construction can emit a significant of CO2, but the plants when running are low-carbon, and like hydropower dams, have a long lifespan.

Read the full analysis here:

Global resource potential of seasonal pumped hydropower storage for energy and water storage

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jul 1, 2022

Pumped Storage is good and has been around for a long time. In my area of desert in Arizona dams help reduce rare flooding from storms . The steady power 24/7 is great too. When combines with Battery Storage it can react much faster than pumped storage. After reacting fast with batteries the storage can then keep up a good amount of power for a long time. 

   The other problem with pumped storage is all the energy used to pump the water. When the water is released it gives less than it took to store the energy.  Our power company said they work for 80% efficiency. While Battery storage is 98% efficient. so that is about a 20% loss. There is a lot of evaporation too which in a desert is not a good things to have.   

Aydan Liang's picture
Aydan Liang on Jul 14, 2022

Pumped energy storage though has been around for a long time and plays a very important role in power generation, bringing stable power generation while effectively managing water resources and reducing flooding!

Julian Jackson's picture
Thank Julian for the Post!
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