Feature: A defining year for pumped storage hydropower

Pumped storage hydropower (PSH) currently accounts for over 90 per cent of the world’s grid-scale energy storage applications, with 160 GW of installed capacity and 9,000 GWh in energy storage capacity.

PSH is a mature and proven technology capable of storing energy or daily cycles up to seasonal storage applications, as well as providing essential grid services for power system reliability.

The impacts of Covid-19 and extreme weather events over the past 12 months have demonstrated the solutions pumped storage hydropower can offer to combat a growing list of challenges facing grid operators.

During the height of global lockdowns, electricity demand declined by up to 30 per cent. Over these periods of low electricity demand, pumped storage was hailed by the Financial Times as the “first line of defence in the battle to keep Britain’s lights on”.

In the first quarter of 2021, the UK experienced a period of low wind, reducing wind energy generation to levels not seen in over ten years. Over this time period, PSH helped stabilise the UK electricity grid by supplying daily electricity inputs at record high rates.

Similarly, hydropower and pumped storage helped prevent a large-scale blackout in continental Europe on 8 January 2021. With the phase-out of fossil generation to reach climate targets, the importance of hydropower’s storage and flexibility services will continue to grow.

Given the increasing number of net zero emissions targets being set, governments, industry and the wider sector need to work collaboratively and quickly develop PSH at scale to support the rapid roll-out of variable renewables.

Launched in November 2020 and co-chaired by the U.S. Department of Energy and former Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull, the International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower is a government-led multi-stakeholder platform to shape and enhance the role of PSH in future power systems.

The Forum brings together 13 governments – the USA, Austria, Brazil, Colombia, Estonia, Greece, India, Indonesia, Israel, Morocco, Norway, Sri Lanka and Switzerland – to develop guidance and recommendations on how sustainable pumped storage hydropower can best support the energy transition.

Partners include over 80 organisations from industry, academia and NGOs as well as five multilateral development banks: the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the African Development Bank (AfDB), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

Through convening three working groups, the Forum will deliver actionable recommendations and share best practice in ‘Market and Policy Frameworks’, ‘Capabilities, Costs and Innovation’, and ‘Sustainability’. Final deliverables will be launched at the World Hydropower Congress in September 2021, with the aim of taking these key outcomes to the UN Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow a few weeks later in November 2021.

High-level stakeholders At the inaugural meeting of the Forum, speakers urged governments and industry to move quickly to develop projects at the scale needed to support the rapid roll-out of variable renewables.

In his opening address, Mr Turnbull stated that “politicisation of climate policy has delayed global action and disrupted the orderly planning needed to move to a future of zero emissions and affordable and reliable energy”. The second meeting in May 2021 was opened by U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm with the statement that investing in hydropower, especially pumped storage, is a central part of President Biden’s green energy jobs plan and “can help us take major steps forward while creating millions of new, good paying jobs and improving the quality of life for Americans everywhere”.

The remarks by Secretary Granholm were followed by a highlevel roundtable discussion with Mr Turnbull and Greek Energy Minister Kostas Skrekas, amongst other speakers. As part of national recovery plans, the Greek government is leveraging the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) to finance pumped storage projects in Greece.

“As we shift how we power our countries and economies, the need to scale up and realise the power of hydropower has never been greater,” said Kelly Speakes-Backman, Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy and Co-Chair of the Forum.

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