Pumped hydro isn’t our energy future, it’s our past

Bruce Mountain, Victoria University and Steven Percy, Victoria University

It’s now beyond dispute that — for new electricity generation — solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy are cheaper than anything else: cheaper than new coal fired power stations, cheaper than new gas-fired stations and cheaper than new nuclear power plants.

The International Energy Association says so. Its latest World Energy Outlook describes solar as the cheapest electricity in history.

Solar costs 20% to 50% less than it thought it would two years ago.

Attention has turned instead to the ways to best meet demand when renewable resources are not available.

The government is a big supporter of gas, and as importantly, pumped hydro.

It has backed the $6 billion-plus Snowy Hydro 2.0 pumped hydro project (the world’s biggest) and Tasmania’s proposed $7 billion “battery of the nation”.

Pumped hydro is an old technology, as old as the electricity industry itself.

Pumped hydro is old technology

It became fashionable from the 1960s to 1980s as a complement to inflexible coal and nuclear generators.

When their output wasn’t needed (mainly at night) it was used to pump water to higher ground so that it could be released and used to run hydro generators when demand was high.

Australia’s three pumped hydro plants are old, built at least 40 years ago, and they operate infrequently, and sometimes not at all for years.

Read more:
Snowy 2.0 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it will push carbon emissions up, not down

Gas fired electricity generation, whether by turbines (essentially a bigger version of those found on aeroplanes) or by conventional reciprocating engines, has several advantages over pumped hydro including much smaller local environmental impacts and in many cases smaller greenhouse gas impacts.

They can be built quickly and, most importantly, if there is a gas supply they can be built close to electrical loads. There are 17 gas-fired peaking generators in the National Electricity Market, but none have been built over the past decade.

Batteries are cheaper

Batteries have advantages over both.

In 2017, Australia built the world’s biggest battery, but it since been overtaken by a Californian battery more than twice its size and may soon be overtaken by one 150 times the size as part of the Sun Cable project in the Northern Territory which will send solar and stored electricity to Singapore.

Part of Tasmania’s proposed Battery of the Nation project.

In a study commissioned by the Bob Brown Foundation, we have compared the pumped hydro “battery of the nation” project to actual batteries and to gas turbines.

The battery of the nation (BoTN) is a proposal instigated by the Australian and Tasmanian governments to add more pumped hydro to Tasmania’s hydro power system and used enhanced interconnectors to provide electricity on demand to Victoria.

We sought to determine what could most cost-effectively provide Victoria with 1,500 megawatts — the BoTN, gas turbines or batteries.

Partly this depends on how long peak demand for dispatchable power last. BoTN would be able to provide sustained power for 12 hours, but we found that in practice, even when our system becomes much more reliant on renewables, it would be unusual for anything longer than four hours to be needed.

Less than half the cost

We could easily dismiss gas turbines — the Australian Energy Market Operator’s costings have batteries much cheaper than gas turbines to build and operate now and cheaper still by the time the Battery of the Nation would be built.

And batteries are able to respond to instructions in fractions of a second, making them useful in ways gas and pumped hydro aren’t.

They are also able to be placed where they are needed, rather than where there’s a gas connection or an abandoned mine, cliff or hill big enough to be used for pumped hydro.

Read more:
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We found batteries could supply 1,500 megawatts of instantly-available power for less than half of the cost of the enhanced Tasmania to Victoria cable alone, meaning that even if the rest of the BoTN cost little, batteries would still be cheaper.

Pumped hydro projects are being pulled

Origin Energy recently gave up on expanding the Shoalhaven pumped hydro scheme in NSW after finding it would cost more than twice as much to build as first thought.

Similarly, investor-owned Genex has repeatedly deferred its final investment decision on one of the cheapest pumped hydro options in Australia — using depleted gold mine pits in Queensland — despite being offered concessional loans from the Australian Government to cover the entire build cost.

Read more:
Snowy 2.0 threatens to pollute our rivers and wipe out native fish

The final barrier seems to be obtaining subsidies from the Queensland Government to fund the necessary transmission lines.

Snowy 2.0 is proceeding, for now

Snowy 2.0 seems to be proceeding after the Australian Government pumped in $1.4 billion to get it going, and paid a king’s ransom to New South Wales and Victoria for their shares in Snowy Hydro.

Yet even before the main works are to start, credit rating agency S&P has down-graded Snowy Hydro’s stand-alone debt to “junk” and suggested the government will need to pump more money into Snowy Hydro to protect its debt.

Prime Minister Morrison has said recently that batteries can’t compete with gas generators , yet a couple of days later, his government announced support for a 100 megawatt battery in Western Australia, where gas is less than half the price it is on the east coast.

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Enough ambition (and hydrogen) could get Australia to 200% renewable energy

Our analysis suggests neither gas nor pumped hydro can compete with batteries, and if the prime minister wants more of either, he will have to dip his hands deeply into tax payer’s pockets to get it.The Conversation

Bruce Mountain, Director, Victoria Energy Policy Centre, Victoria University and Steven Percy, Senior Research Fellow, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Solar is now the most popular form of new electricity generation worldwide

Andrew Blakers, Australian National University

Solar has become the world’s favourite new type of electricity generation, according to global data showing that more solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity is being installed than any other generation technology.

Worldwide, some 73 gigawatts of net new solar PV capacity was installed in 2016. Wind energy came in second place (55GW), with coal relegated to third (52GW), followed by gas (37GW) and hydro (28GW).


Together, PV and wind represent 5.5% of current energy generation (as at the end of 2016), but crucially they constituted almost half of all net new generation capacity installed worldwide during last year.

It is probable that construction of new coal power stations will decline, possibly quite rapidly, because PV and wind are now cost-competitive almost everywhere.

Hydro is still important in developing countries that still have rivers to dam. Meanwhile, other low-emission technologies such as nuclear, bio-energy, solar thermal and geothermal have small market shares.

PV and wind now have such large advantages in terms of cost, production scale and supply chains that it is difficult to see any other low-emissions technology challenging them within the next decade or so.

That is certainly the case in Australia, where PV and wind comprise virtually all new generation capacity, and where solar PV capacity is set to reach 12GW by 2020. Wind and solar PV are being installed at a combined rate of about 3GW per year, driven largely by the federal government’s Renewable Energy Target (RET).

This is double to triple the rate of recent years, and a welcome return to growth after several years of subdued activity due to political uncertainty over the RET.

If this rate is maintained, then by 2030 more than half of Australian electricity will come from renewable energy and Australia will have met its pledge under the Paris climate agreement purely through emissions savings within the electricity industry.

To take the idea further, if Australia were to double the current combined PV and wind installation rate to 6GW per year, it would reach 100% renewable electricity in about 2033. Modelling by my research group suggests that this would not be difficult, given that these technologies are now cheaper than electricity from new-build coal and gas.

Renewable future in reach

The prescription for an affordable, stable and achievable 100% renewable electricity grid is relatively straightforward:

  1. Use mainly PV and wind. These technologies are cheaper than other low-emission technologies, and Australia has plenty of sunshine and wind, which is why these technologies have already been widely deployed. This means that, compared with other renewables, they have more reliable price projections, and avoid the need for heroic assumptions about the success of more speculative clean energy options.

  2. Distribute generation over a very large area. Spreading wind and PV facilities over wide areas – say a million square kilometres from north Queensland to Tasmania – allows access to a wide range of different weather, and also helps to smooth out peaks in users’ demand.

  3. Build interconnectors. Link up the wide-ranging network of PV and wind with high-voltage power lines of the type already used to move electricity between states.

  4. Add storage. Storage can help match up energy generation with demand patterns. The cheapest option is pumped hydro energy storage (PHES), with support from batteries and demand management.

Australia currently has three PHES systems – Tumut 3, Kangaroo Valley, and Wivenhoe – all of which are on rivers. But there is a vast number of potential off-river sites.

Potential sites for pumped hydro storage in Queensland, alongside development sites for solar PV (yellow) and wind energy (green). Galilee Basin coal prospects are shown in black.
Andrew Blakers/Margaret Blakers, Author provided

In a project funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, we have identified about 5,000 sites in South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, the Canberra district, and the Alice Springs district that are potentially suitable for pumped hydro storage.

Each of these sites has between 7 and 1,000 times the storage potential of the Tesla battery currently being installed to support the South Australian grid. What’s more, pumped hydro has a lifetime of 50 years, compared with 8-15 years for batteries.

Importantly, most of the prospective PHES sites are located near where people live and where new PV and wind farms are being constructed.

Once the search for sites in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia is complete, we expect to uncover 70-100 times more PHES energy storage potential than required to support a 100% renewable electricity grid in Australia.

Potential PHES upper reservoir sites east of Port Augusta, South Australia. The lower reservoirs would be at the western foot of the hills (bottom of the image).
Google Earth/ANU

Managing the grid

Fossil fuel generators currently provide another service to the grid, besides just generating electricity. They help to balance supply and demand, on timescales down to seconds, through the “inertial energy” stored in their heavy spinning generators.

But in the future this service can be performed by similar generators used in pumped hydro systems. And supply and demand can also be matched with the help of fast-response batteries, demand management, and “synthetic inertia” from PV and wind farms.

Wind and PV are delivering ever tougher competition for gas throughout the energy market. The price of large-scale wind and PV in 2016 was A$65-78 per megawatt hour. This is below the current wholesale price of electricity in the National Electricity Market.

Abundant anecdotal evidence suggests that wind and PV energy price has fallen to A$60-70 per MWh this year as the industry takes off. Prices are likely to dip below A$50 per MWh within a few years, to match current international benchmark prices. Thus, the net cost of moving to a 100% renewable electricity system over the next 15 years is zero compared with continuing to build and maintain facilities for the current fossil-fuelled system.

Gas can no longer compete with wind and PV for delivery of electricity. Electric heat pumps are driving gas out of water and space heating. Even for delivery of high-temperature heat for industry, gas must cost less than A$10 per gigajoule to compete with electric furnaces powered by wind and PV power costing A$50 per MWh.

Importantly, the more that low-cost PV and wind is deployed in the current high-cost electricity environment, the more they will reduce prices.

Then there is the issue of other types of energy use besides electricity – such as transport, heating, and industry. The cheapest way to make these energy sources green is to electrify virtually everything, and then plug them into an electricity grid powered by renewables.

A 55% reduction in Australian greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved by conversion of the electricity grid to renewables, together with mass adoption of electric vehicles for land transport and electric heat pumps for heating and cooling. Beyond this, we can develop renewable electric-driven pathways to manufacture hydrocarbon-based fuels and chemicals, primarily through electrolysis of water to obtain hydrogen and carbon capture from the atmosphere, to achieve an 83% reduction in emissions (with the residual 17% of emissions coming mainly from agriculture and land clearing).

Doing all of this would mean tripling the amount of electricity we produce, according to my research group’s preliminary estimate.

The ConversationBut there is no shortage of solar and wind energy to achieve this, and prices are rapidly falling. We can build a clean energy future at modest cost if we want to.

Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia: Green Energy Cheaper

The link below is to an interesting article that reports on the cost of electricity generation in Australia.

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Australia: New South Wales – Sydney

The link below is to a media release from Origin Energy concerning an agreement with the City of Sydney to develop low-carbon electricity generation for the city.

For more, visit:

Google Enters Wind Power Generation Business

Internet giant Google has signed an agreement to invest in offshore wind power generation in the United States. This looks like quite a project. Have a look at the Google Blog post concerning this enterprise at: