Governments and major energy multinationals from eleven countries have launched a high-level initiative to accelerate expansion of pumped hydropower to help add energy storage infrastructure to the global renewable energy build-out.

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The International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower, a “multi-stakeholder” group founded by countries including the US, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Israel and Norway, together with financial institutions, non-profit organisations and energy companies such as EDF, GE and Voith, targets doubling current global pumped hydro plant capacity to 325GW by 2050.

“Pumped storage is the most cost-effective [energy storage] technology for large long-duration applications, which is critical to maintaining system reliability and resilience, particularly in grids with large amounts of wind and solar power,” said Alejandro Morena, director of hydropower and marine energy at the US Department of Energy (DOE), which is shepherding the initiative.

“It is often referred to in the US as the ‘holy grail’ and its value to grid assets is becoming clearer by the day. While we should absolutely look to new innovations [in energy storage technology] we should never forget we have a very effective solution already at hand and is very cost-effective over time.”

The forum, organised by International Hydropower Association (IHA), aims to “promote [sector-supporting] policy and knowledge exchange on the technical and market reforms necessary to overcome barriers to sustainable projects” in order to grow the market for pumped storage hydropower – which currently accounts for over 94% installed energy storage capacity, with estimates that sector projects now store at least 9TWh of electricity globally.

Daniel Simmons, assistant secretary for the DOE’s office of renewable energy, stated: “With this initiative we have an opportunity to help ensure that pumped storage hydropower will play an important role in our power systems today and into the future.

“It enjoys several distinct advantages over other forms of energy storage due to its long asset life, large storage capacity, low-lifetime cost and reduced dependence on imported raw materials.”

Though the long-duration energy storage market has evolved rapidly in recent years with the advent of technologies including liquid-air cryobattery systems and hot-rock thermal concepts, as well as next-generation molten salt designs, pumped storage hydropower is seen by proponents as a strong fit with wind and solar power arrays as it can flex for variability and seasonality.

Eddie Rich, CEO of IHA, said: “Irena [the International Renewable Energy Agency] has stated that pumped storage hydropower, which provides most of the world’s energy storage capacity, needs to nearly double by 2050 to meet ambitious global climate targets.

“The good news is that there is massive potential, including over 600,000 potential off-river sites that have recently been identified, plus opportunities for modernising existing plants.

“Over the next year, the forum’s partners are expected to exchange good practices and agree proposals to clear the way for an upsurge in pumped storage developments while also looking at ways to improve the sustainability and efficiency of existing facilities.”

Irena estimates in scenario modelling for the changes in the global energy system that would hold temperatures to well below 2°C pre-industrial levels calculated that pumped storage hydropower capacity would need to grow from 160GW to 325GW over the next 30 years.

“Despite being an ideal source of clean energy storage to integrate wind and solar power, worldwide growth in pumped storage hydropower remains slow having been stymied by a lack of policy and financial incentives for new developments,” said Rich.

As well as government and industry involvement, the forum will have participation from multilateral development financial institutions such as the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.