Wednesday, November 29, 2017

How quickly can a pumped hydro system be built?

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where the ANU Energy Update 2017 is ending. The last speaker is speaker Ms Audrey Zibelman, CEO Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO). She pointed out that the world's largest battery was installed in South Australia in only a few months and a new solar farm was increased in Queensland similarly quickly. It occurred to me that there could be an opportunity for similarly fast installation of pumped-storage hydroelectricity.

While batteries are useful for storing power for a few minutes or hours, renewable energy systems need days of storage. ANU's Professor Blakers (who is at the event today) has identified 22,000 potential pumped hydro sites in Australia. However, building reservoirs, pipes, pumps, turbines and grid connection can take ten years.

It is not feasible to build a pumped hydro system in the few months it took for South Australia's battery, but it may be feasible in one or two years. This would place the option within the decision cycle of Australian governments and business.

The time to build a pumped hydro system could be shortened using modern project management and manufacturing techniques. The site could be surveyed using satellite and drones. At the same time the site's social and legal issues would be examined on-line.

The dams, pipes, and buildings could be manufactured in standardized modules which can be shipped across the world in standard container loads.

The turbines and pumps could be additive manufactured. Australian researchers produced a 3D printed a gas turbine in 2016.Multiple small units could be used, for ease of manufacture, transport and installation (at the cost of efficiency). Units could be made small enough to be transported to the site by heavy lift helicopter.

As a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, consider how many modular industrial water tanks would be needed to store as much energy as the SA 129MWh battery. Modular steel water tanks are available with a 748kl capacity (5.6m tall x 13 m diameter). Using the Simplified PHES Calculator (Andrew Blakers, Matt Stocks, Bin Lu, Kirsten Anderson and Anna Nadolny), with a 300 m head each tank will store 0.4 MWh of energy. So 323 tanks would be required to store as much energy as the SA battery. The materials for each tank would be within the capacity of a heavy lift helicopter, removing the need to build a road to the mountain top.

Pumped hydro systems could be built in stages, so they can start producing power (and revenue), with extra modules added later.

It would be tempting to focus on the engineering aspects of such a project: the 3D printed turbines and modular pipework. However, it is likely to be the planning of the land use which will create the greatest obstacles.  One technique which has been found to be effective in Europe in reducing complaints about wind turbines from the local community is to offer them a financial stake in the project. The same may work with pumped hydro.

It is very difficult to convince a politician to fund a project which will not be completed for a decade, long after the next election, or a business-person long after their bonus has been calculated. It would be very much easier if they can see progress in months and completion in a few years.

This might be a suitable project for the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN) or the Renewables Innovation Hub.

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