Viewpoint: Hydropower Storage: The Key to Pumping up the Global Renewable Energy Rollout

By David Appleyard

More than half of all the new global hydropower capacity added in 2014 was in China. According to a new International Hydropower Association (IHA) briefing, some 21.25 GW of new hydropower was installed in China that year.

Other active countries include Brazil and Malaysia with more than 3.3 GW installed each, Canada up by 1.7 GW, Turkey 1.4 GW, with India and Russia rounding out the top seven with installations of 1.2 GW and 1.1 GW, respectively.

Commenting on the figures, Richard Taylor, chief executive of IHA, said: “This new information shows that hydropower’s strong growth trend around the world is continuing.”

Certainly Taylor is correct to pick up on major growth of hydropower in the developing world as a key development theme, but he also highlighted the growing recognition of the diversity of services that hydropower has to offer: “Not just in terms of clean energy generation, but also the contribution it can make in providing a range of water services and solutions to climate change.”

A precursor to the 2015 Hydropower Status Report, which is due for release later in the year, the IHA analysis, ‘2015 Key Trends in Hydropower,’ also finds that an additional 0.6 GW of pumped hydro capacity was installed in China over the course of 2014.

This is significant as the figures highlight the growing attractiveness of hydropower as a method of storing energy, in particular in light of the growing volumes of variable output renewables like wind and solar.

The IHA figures preceded a new energy storage technology roadmap from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Titled: ‘Renewables and Electricity Storage,’ the document indicates priorities and points out specific actions where governments, industry and other stakeholders should work together to advance storage systems as part of the infrastructure for a sustainable energy future, with renewable sources and technologies dominating the power sector.

This roadmap is part of IRENA’s REmap 2030 program, which concludes that we must double the global share of renewables to 45% by 2030 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

According to IRENA, in order to meet such a target an estimated 325 GW of new pumped-storage hydroelectricity will be needed, making hydropower storage a vital element in the expansion of renewable energy.

Indeed, despite acknowledged advances in battery storage technologies such as lithium-ion, IRENA states that pumped-storage hydropower remains a key technology in supporting the integration of variable renewables. On that basis, they conclude that pumped-storage hydroelectricity should be separately evaluated when considering options to support power system operations due to their commercial competitiveness, large capacity and storage duration. This means they should be the first storage options evaluated for helping balance grids with high shares of variable output renewable energy, IRENA says.

Furthermore, IRENA argues that pumped-storage hydroelectricity should be considered both within national boundaries and in neighboring countries: “This means the analysis of these technologies must be extended to the impact they may have in supporting grid operation and participating in different markets. This includes, for instance, frequency regulation, balancing and capacity markets.”

Pumped-storage hydroelectricity is at present “the only storage technology capable of cost-effectively storing large amounts of electricity” (eg terawatt-hours) over multiple days, the agency concludes.

Japan, China and the USA have the highest installed capacities of hydropower pumped storage capacity to date, with 26 GW, 23 GW and 20 GW, respectively. Meanwhile, Europe has around 230 pumped-storage hydroelectricity plants installed with a total capacity of 41 GW. Of this total, around 7 GW is located in Italy and France, and around 5 GW in Austria, Germany and Spain.

“This roadmap is a starting point for all policymakers seeking to integrate greater storage capabilities, which is necessary to ensure the world is ready for the next phase of growth for renewable power systems,” explained IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin.

Additional energy storage capacity is evidently key to a greater role for clean, renewable energy across the world’s power grids. However, it is also clear that pumped storage is still the least cost, most effective storage technology available.

For all the drive in R&D to develop alternatives to pumped storage, once again it seems as if the world’s policymakers could learn from the Chinese. Both by making incredible strides in developing renewable energy capacities — wind and solar as well as hydropower — but ramping up pumped storage capacity, too.

David Appleyard
Chief Editor

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