Last summer’s California blackouts and the recent ones in Texas left millions of Americans from all walks of life without power. The aftermath of these blackouts has clearly illustrated that grid operators need reliable energy storage resources to carry the load of increasing demand for renewable energy. Providing the overwhelming majority of the current energy storage capacity, pumped hydropower, like the proposed Goldendale Energy Storage Project, is clearly positioned to meet this unquenched demand for energy storage in the Pacific Northwest.
As the Texas and California blackouts have illustrated, storing energy for when it is needed is vital. Why? Because the frequency of these blackouts will become more of the norm rather than a one-off occurrence if the electric grid isn’t able to store the vast amounts of clean energy produced from renewables.
The United States has made great strides in the deployment of renewable energy like wind and solar. But as ubiquitous as they are becoming in today’s energy mix, renewable resources are intermittent, meaning the electricity they produce fluctuates daily, if not hourly. Or, as Bill Gates noted in 2019, “Wind and solar-powered generation is expanding, but one challenge we face is how to store that energy when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.”
So, what is the solution? Without a doubt, the advancements in lithium-ion batteries as a storage mechanism have been impressive, and will continue to be. But the simple fact remains that pumped-hydropower facilities still provide 95 percent of the current energy storage availability in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
There are approximately 22.9 gigawatts of pumped storage capacity in the United States, or enough power to meet the needs of 16 million households. It has the proven ability to complement the intermittent nature of wind and solar. So, it’s not surprising that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is currently considering license applications that would add 1,145 megawatts of pumped storage capacity and relicense another 3,135 megawatts of existing capacity.
Exactly how would the Goldendale project provide this much-needed storage? The Goldendale project is a closed-loop system. In a system like this, water is pumped from one reservoir to another reservoir, at a significantly higher elevation — at night — or when electricity demand and prices are at their lowest. The water is subsequently released from the upper reservoir to the lower pool through a system of hydropower turbines when power demand and prices are at their highest.
When fully operational, the Goldendale Energy Storage Project will play a pivotal role in ensuring that the Pacific Northwest avoids California-like blackouts and accelerating the region toward its ambitious renewable energy goals.
And it’s not an understatement to say that policymakers have lofty renewable energy goals. Take Washington, for example. The Washington Clean Energy Transformation Act (SB 5116) signed by Gov. Jay Inslee requires that 100 percent of electricity for Washington customers be renewable or non-emitting by 2045. Oregon’s plan is also ambitious, requiring that 50 percent of electricity for consumers be renewable by 2040.
A study by the energy consulting group E3 found that given these renewable energy goals, the Pacific Northwest faces a potential energy storage capacity shortfall of 10,000 megawatts by 2030.
Given this severe shortfall, the Goldendale project comes along at just the right time to give the region the clean hydropower and storage it needs. The project will generate upwards of 1,200 megawatts of clean electricity with 25,506 MWh of storage. This capability will allow storage for the region’s abundant wind and solar electricity when needed. Furthermore, the project provides Washington state with a local, clean energy source that does not require the significant investment in powerline infrastructure necessary to bring wind and solar in from out-of-state sources.
To put the Goldendale project’s potential in perspective, it would generate approximately the same amount of electricity as 7,320 acres of wind turbines or 53,640 acres of solar without the significant transmission infrastructure investment required to bring those sources into Washington from out of state. Additionally, pumped hydro storage does not come with the negative environmental impacts of the lithium-ion battery industry, which relies on heavy mining operations, toxic chemicals and fossil fuel for transportation.
FERC has the final say over whether to approve this laudable clean energy storage project. As the Texas and California experiences have illustrated, FERC should move swiftly to approve the necessary permits for projects like Goldendale Energy Storage to ensure that the grid can remain reliable during this transition to additional renewable sources.
Paul Griffin is executive director of Energy Fairness and has more than 20 years of experience on hydropower issues at all levels of government, including serving as former Rep. Greg Walden’s (R-Ore.) energy policy adviser for Pacific Northwest hydropower issues.
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