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Pumped hydro research bags ANU academics Eureka Prize

A team of academics who discovered 22,000 possible pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) sites across Australia has been awarded the 2018 Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.

The RE100 group, led by the Australian National University’s (ANU) Professor Andrew Blakers, has shown Australia could transition to 100% renewable electricity while retaining a reliable energy supply using pumped hydro.

Although the group identified 22,000 possible PHES sites, Blakers said this far exceeds the amount needed.

“We only need about 22 locations. This means we can be extremely choosy and just pick the very best sites,” he said.

Australia will have a 100% renewable electricity grid “much sooner than most people think”, according to Blakers, because renewables will push coal out of the electricity system, gas out of low temperature air and water heating, and oil out of transport.

He said the demand for electricity would increase by about 30% if Australia’s entire land transport converted to electricity, but it would be renewables, rather than coal, meeting the demand.

“As the demand for electricity goes up, I really don’t believe there will be new coal-fired power stations filling the gap – it’s going to be wind and PV. And as coal power stations retire, it’s the same story – it’s wind and PV replacing them.”

PHES accounts for 97% of energy storage worldwide, while Australia currently has about 3GW. Blakers said this will need to increase given the rate that wind and solar are being added to the grid.

“The speed with which we’re installing wind and solar PV is sufficient to get to 50% renewable electricity in 2024 and 100% in 2032. So we need to focus not on the politics of pretending we’re going back to coal but on the practicalities of doing the adaptations we need to make sure we can accommodate renewables,” he said.

“As you push up above 50% renewable electricity you need to introduce more storage, and there are only two storage shows in town: one is batteries, which are very expensive and small scale; and the other is pumped hydro.”

Blakers likened those attempting to keep Australia reliant on coal to groups who tried to protect the cigarette industry in the ‘60s.

“Exactly the same tactics are being used: throw doubt on the science; delay, delay, delay; extract the last decade or three of profits; and end up with exactly the same outcome. They lose in the end, but a lot of people get damaged along the way.”

He said this means it is important to make the public aware of the benefits of renewable energy.

“PV and wind have got it all. There’s minimal environmental impact, there’s no material supply issue and we’ll never go to war over access to solar or wind … It’s just the perfect energy source; it ticks every box. And coal and nuclear tick very few boxes.”

Wind and solar also use a lot less water than traditional coal power stations.

“At the moment we have a coal-dominated system and most coal power stations have cooling towers … When you get to a PV and wind grid with pumped hydro and battery backing, the amount of water required will go down by a factor of four to seven, so all that freshwater gets freed up for more productive purposes rather than contributing to humidity over the Pacific Ocean,” Blakers said.

“The technology is 100 years old but beautifully engineered – it has been honed to become extremely efficient and low cost.”