Pumping, ‘superbatteries’ for more wind power and photovoltaic energy

Energy companies have plans in different states of maturity to build up to 40 pumped hydroelectric plants with a power of 15,000 MW, triple those already operational in the country.
The massive deployment of new renewable energy plants in Spain forces us to face major challenges for the reorganization of the electrical system. The intermittency of the production of the two great green energies – wind and photovoltaic – depending on whether there is wind and sun forces the development of a colossal energy storage system in order to be able to replace other generation technologies such as nuclear with only renewable ones. or gas plants.
Energy companies are accelerating to be able to implement energy storage systems that go beyond large batteries (whose technological maturity and limited expansion still prevent their massive use to store wind and solar electricity for use when necessary). The electricity companies have a huge portfolio of projects to deploy reversible hydroelectric plants throughout Spain, which serve to produce electricity over and over again with the same water and which in practice are considered a storage system, also functioning as a ‘ super battery’ to provide light almost at will when needed
Spain has more than a thousand conventional hydroelectric plants, in which water is retained in a reservoir, released to produce electricity and then simply follows the riverbed. But it also has a handful of facilities whose particular technology is destined to play a crucial role in the country’s energy future.

These are reversible or pumped hydroelectric plants, which generally have two reservoirs that are at different heights and linked to each other by conduits to transfer water in a kind of closed circuit. During the hours of lower demand for electricity, water is pumped from the lower reservoir to the upper one and the latter discharges it and produces electricity at times of greatest energy consumption. This way the water is reused and the installation works as a ‘super battery’ by being able to supply electricity when it is most needed.
Currently, 21 hydraulic pumping plants are operational in Spain with a combined power of 5,380 megawatts (MW), divided between about 3,300 MW of pure pumping plants (in which it is always necessary to pump water to the upper reservoir) and about 2,000 MW of mixed pumping (which can function as both a conventional and a reversible hydroelectric plant). Twenty installations are underway that are managed by large energy groups such as Iberdrola, Endesa, Naturgy, Repsol, Acciona or EDP.

Central hidroeléctrica de bombeo de La Muela, de Iberdrola. / Iberdrola

The electricity companies also have power plants in the pipeline for another 2,735 MW of power and that already have permission to connect to the high-voltage grid and also with facilities in the pipeline for another additional 1,250 MW for which they have requested authorization to connect. to the grid, according to the records of Red Eléctrica de España (REE), the manager of the national electricity system.
But the plans of large electricity companies to promote the use of reservoirs as ‘superbatteries’ go much further. The Ministry for the Ecological Transition, still led by Vice President Teresa Ribera, has received requests to carry out the environmental scope study of 40 pumping plant projects that total almost 15,000 MW of power.

The environmental scoping study serves to determine the breadth and degree of specification that the subsequent formal environmental impact analysis must contain. This is a prior analysis that serves to expedite the mandatory environmental impact declaration that all projects must have for their implementation. The aim is to advance work and discard projects that are unviable after a first prior study. Not all projects will go ahead, but they confirm the interest of energy companies in this type of hydroelectric storage.

The electricity sector sees colossal potential to grow in Spain. Iberdrola, the main operator of pumping plants in the Spanish market with about 3,500 MW (about two thirds of the total power of this technology in the country), estimates that there is potential to build about 10,000 MW of new pumping plants until 2030 at a reasonable cost, since they would be achieved by adapting existing plants or connecting several already operational reservoirs. The investment would amount to around 8,000 million euros, according to the company’s calculation. For this to be a reality, they add, mechanisms are needed that reward capacity and encourage storage. Iberdrola, in fact, has 3.5 GW in pumping plants, which represents almost two thirds of the entire pumping system in Spain.
The update of the National Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC), the green roadmap until 2030 prepared by the Government, contemplates that Spain will have a storage capacity of 22,000 MW by the end of the decade. The goal does not establish quotas for different types of storage technologies, so it is a global goal that can be achieved through batteries, thermoelectric plants or pumped hydroelectric plants.

Although the weight that each of the different technologies should have is not established, the Government openly praises in the document itself the advantages of pumping plants and undertakes to promote them, especially through the conversion of existing conventional hydroelectric facilities, with which reduces the investment necessary to increase storage capacity and limits the associated environmental impact.

The Ministry for the Ecological Transition anticipated in the new PNIEC its intention to simplify the administrative processing for new reversible plants. The Government has reformed the water law to convert hydraulic energy storage as an absolutely priority use of water, only behind human consumption and irrigation. A legal change that will allow the installation of these plants to be accelerated by giving them preference in the new water concessions that are granted. Furthermore, the Ministry of Teresa Ribera is committed to studying the suitability of building pumping plants in all state-owned reservoirs, both those that are already managed by the Administration and those that revert to the hands of the State when the concessions in the hands of the State expire. energy companies (about twenty over the next decade).

In parallel, the Government has approved an urgent expansion of the country’s electrical networks to avoid saturation in areas where large industrial projects or renewable and green hydrogen megaplants are going to be installed. Among the actions contemplated in the review of the electrical networks plan are the strengthening of connections to facilitate the start-up of five pumped hydroelectric plants planned by Iberdrola, Endesa, EDP and Magtel.