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The UK’s low-carbon energy future? Pumped hydro storage

The UK could save £3.5 billion a year from the cost of moving to low carbon electricity with grid-scale electricity storage for renewable generated power.

More storage could balance the variable output of renewables but may also strengthen Britain’s energy security and enable carbon reduction targets to be met more quickly. A new paper by QBC, a grid-scale storage developer, claims that storage is currently the missing piece of the UK’s renewables jigsaw.

To meet EU and national climate change targets, UK government policy has encouraged the closure of coal and oil fired power stations – the heaviest CO2 emitters – while putting in place generous subsidies for renewable generation such wind and solar.

Other countries have coupled the building of new storage to renewables so that surplus energy can be captured and used later when the wind and/or sun are not favourable. More than 99% of electricity storage around the world uses pumped hydro technology due to its low cost and proven reliability.

Overlooked green energy solution?

But the UK has so far only modestly engaged with pumped hydro storage solutions, choosing instead CO2-producing diesel generators and gas power stations as backup. This has cost implications as fossil-fuelled generation must be in reserve.

QBC, which is currently developing its first pumped hydro site in North Wales, claims it has identified locations throughout Britain with low planning risk that could deliver 10GW of such storage. QBC claims that 10GW of pumped hydro-storage facilities will save some £3.5 billion a year due to less than planned offshore wind being needed to meet generating requirements.

The biggest savings, though, come from soaking up generation when supply exceeds demand. Imperial College estimates that by 2020 Britain will effectively be throwing away up to 27% of wind electricity. Storage will enable Britain to cut waste to just 7%, lessening the need for contentious constraint payments.

Storage could also help achieve carbon targets with QBC estimating that 5 million fewer tonnes of CO2 emitted per year storage if standby fossil-fuelled plants are replaced. A more secure and self-sufficient electricity supply, less dependent on interconnectors with neighbouring countries is also predicted.

But QBC chairman Peter Taylor warns that energy storage are not a quick solution. “Putting the UK back on a par with other nations will take time. A single new pumped hydro storage facility might take anything up to seven years from initial proposal to actually beginning operation. With 30GW of renewables planned for 2020 Britain does not have the luxury of … kicking the storage can down the road.

“Our survey shows that Britain could achieve as much as 50GWh of storage using innovative pumped hydro alone. We don’t claim pumped hydro is the sole answer to the UK’s storage needs. Certainly it is the tried and tested option, but we see a future where the UK incorporates different storage technologies at different layers in the system, with pumped hydro providing big capacity, fast reaction storage at grid-level, other technologies at distribution network substations, and even domestic storage playing a part.”

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