Can we really scale cheap pumped hydro storage? Review of Blakers et al.

Much media attention has focused on recently released work by Andrew Blakers, Bin Lu and Matthew Stocks,  distinguished researchers at the Australian National University. Claims in the media include:

"The primary aim was to find out whether we could go to 100 per cent renewable electricity while using only common, off-the-shelf items that have very well established prices. The short answer is, 'yes'." 
"The reliability is there because we have done very careful, hour-by-hour analysis of the Australian electricity grid and we find that with a modest amount of storage and some increased interconnectors within the states, the entire stability can match anything coal and gas can deliver." 

There is a regular occurrence in energy research, particularly pertaining to research into high-penetration renewables, where claims and media reporting run ahead of the content and certainty of the work itself. 

The recurrent positivism in the media gives the impression of progress; however, over time it might instead retard the cause of clean energy, burning through the interest and enthusiasm of the community for little or no eventual returns as reality catches up with claims.

The announcement and coverage of Blakers et al. is reminiscent of that surrounding the announcement of a plan published in 2010 called “Zero Carbon Australia” . Seven years later, not only has none of the core of that plan come to pass, but the new work by Blakers et al.  substantially repudiates most of the core aspects of that plan.

This must serve as a cautionary tale. Energy research for comprehensive clean energy systems needs to provide the public, media and governments with useful information on which to form and implement good policy. Such policy should be (i) focussed on desired outcomes, not preferred technologies and (ii) adaptable to learning and change that must occur with technological and other advances. The alternative pathway is presenting a ‘road map’, declaring the problem solved, and dismissing obstacles as merely a lack of “political will”. The main problems with this approach include:

  • Detachment from the challenges of on-ground implementation. 
  • Ignoring the roles and opinions of the public, the finance community and the body-politic.
  • Inevitable evolution of technological knowledge and experience.

Understandably, our media is ill-equipped to confidently challenge the assertions and quickly interrogate the underlying work. Fortunately, Bright New World can do this.

We have prepared this prompt, non-comprehensive response to Blakers et al.. We have written this like a formal scientific peer review, whereby assertions are challenged, referencing and justification is sought, and overall quality and robustness of the work is tested.

While not definitive, our assessment will provide a useful guide to media and non-specialist readers on how critical reviews of this type of work should be approached. It would likely be improved with input from other key disciplines.

As in all peer-review, the process is not personal. It is merely essential.

Our overall finding is well-represented in one statement from Blakers et al.  (emphases added):

... this work demonstrates that the system can manage variable generation provided it is well distributed and that sufficient low cost storage can be provided to balance supply and demand.

The crux of their report is a simulation of supply in a system where excess electricity is stored by converting the electrical energy to gravitational potential energy in the form of pumped hydro electric storage. Relying on many assumptions with limited evidence, Blakers et al.  assume this pumped hydro electric storage is (i) unconstrained in quantity, (ii) seamlessly connected, (iii) available at low cost. In other words, they assume that energy storage is basically ubiquitous.

None of these conditions exists today. As our review demonstrates, the availability of this sufficient, low cost storage is not convincingly demonstrated and they entirely overlook important costs.

Pumped hydro facilities can and do fail. This incident nearly killed three children.

Pumped hydro facilities can and do fail. This incident nearly killed three children.

Blakers et al. provides a potentially valuable future contribution to clean-energy systems. However, it requires an additional validation step through the scientific peer-review system.

In the following sections, we review the document, step-by-step in further detail. As all reviews should, this includes acknowledging the strong aspects of the work with respect to literature that has come before.

As it stands, Blakers et al. provide an interesting “what if?” and might eventually end up in the scientific literature. However, it is not a credible plan for that justifies lesser consideration of other options.

Read the full report here.

Ben Heard