Deluge of Hydropower to Boost Grid Reliability

Hydropower is classic renewable energy, starting long before solar and wind power had their fun in the sun. The new Hydropower Vision report – outlining the state of the hydro industry and the DOE’s vision for the future – made its debut last week. Let’s dive into it…

Data that Makes You Say Dam

The U.S. has about 2,200 active hydropower plants with a total capacity of 79.6 GigaWatts (GW). For reference, California runs on less than 40 GW. 

That makes hydropower the largest source of renewable energy.

The DOE growth model projects new capacity of hydropower to grow by 12.8 GW nationwide through 2050, almost entirely coming from upgrades to existing facilities rather than new development.

There are 42 Pumped Storage Hydropower (PSH) plants in the U.S., totaling 21.6 GW. The DOE forecasts an additional 35.5 GW of new pumped storage capacity by 2050. THIS is what we need to talk about.

PUMP IT UP

Like classic hydro, pumped storage plants release water through turbines to generate electricity when needed. But when grid electricity is abundant, these plants pump water back to a reservoir at a higher elevation. It can then flow down again when electricity is in demand, and the cycle repeats.

The point of all this? Pumped hydro provides a large-scale, affordable method of storing and deploying electricity. It’s basically a giant natural battery.

Electricity storage has been a major issue because other renewable energy sources rise and fall throughout the day depending on weather conditions. Pumped storage hydropower can smooth out the grid’s supply and demand spikes, making it more reliable.

Pumped hydro comprises the majority – a massive 97% – of U.S. utility-scale electricity storage.

Pumped storage can utilize excess solar energy during the day and pick up the slack when the Apollo quits for the night. It can be the balance that solar needs. The Axl to its Slash. The Sam to its Frodo. The Lamb to its tuna fish.

Damnation

Before we give props to the beavers for being hydro visionaries…

Turns out that some dams sever ecosystems and cause a big negative impact. What’s the point of clean energy if it harms the surrounding environment?

Watch the documentary ‘Damnation’ to fully understand the adverse effects of dams. Many environmentalists, including Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard who produced the film, explain why we need to give a damn.

Thankfully, the DOE agrees that fish are friends. The report declares environmental stewardship imperative for the future of hydropower. Their vision includes, “continued improvement in mitigating adverse effects, protection of fish and wildlife, and increased public awareness”. 

That’s why development of new facilities is not the plan. Old obsolete dams should also be removed to return the rivers and fish to their natural states. Six Western dams were deconstructed in 2015.

Investment Opportunity

Deployment of 35.5 GW of new PSH by 2050 corresponds to roughly 45% of national demand met by variable generation:

The DOE growth model is based on the assumption that technology will advance and low-cost finance will be accessible. That leaves a wide hole of opportunity to fill by cleantech innovators and financiers.

GE is a leader in pumped hydro and is making plants around the world, including a new facility for Axpo in the Swiss alps:

Check out GE’s innovative work here. No, seriously, click here. You’ll get a WAY better understanding of everything you just read.

 

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