by Tom Murphy

If we adopt solar and wind as major components of our energy infrastructure as we are weaned from fossil fuels, we have to solve the energy storage problem in a big way. An earlier postdemonstrated that we do not likely possess enough materials in the world to simply build giant lead-acid (or nickel-based or lithium-based) batteries to do the job. Comments frequently pointed to pumped hydro storage as a far more sensible answer. Indeed, pumped storage is currently the dominant—and nearly only—grid-scale storage solution out there. Here, we will take a peek at pumped hydro and evaluate what it can do for us.

Gravitational Storage Basics

When you lift an object, you must supply a force to counter gravity (the weight of the object) and apply this force over theheight through which you lift the object. The weight of an object—and therefore the force applied to lift it—is its mass times the acceleration due to gravity (application of Newton’s F = ma; in this case, mg, where g is the gravitational acceleration, or about 10 m/s²). Work is defined as force times distance, so lifting an object of mass m a height h results in an energy (work) investment of mgh. This is called gravitational potential energy.

It is called a potential energy because it is possible to put the invested energy on a shelf—literally, in fact—to be accessed later. A dropped brick that had previously been given gravitational potential energy can do useful work, like driving a nail into a piece of wood (huge force times small distance = same work). The stored energy does not degrade one iota over time: in that sense it represents perfect long-term storage.

The idea for pumped hydro storage is that we can pump a mass of water up into a reservoir (shelf), and later retrieve this energy at will—barring evaporative loss. Pumps and turbines (often implemented as the same physical unit, actually) can be something like 90% efficient, so the round-trip storage comes at only modest cost.

Gravitational Storage Basics

When you lift an object, you must supply a force to counter gravity (the weight of the object) and apply this force over theheight through which you lift the object. The weight of an object—and therefore the force applied to lift it—is its mass times the acceleration due to gravity (application of Newton’s F = ma; in this case, mg, where g is the gravitational acceleration, or about 10 m/s²). Work is defined as force times distance, so lifting an object of mass m a height h results in an energy (work) investment of mgh. This is called gravitational potential energy.

It is called a potential energy because it is possible to put the invested energy on a shelf—literally, in fact—to be accessed later. A dropped brick that had previously been given gravitational potential energy can do useful work, like driving a nail into a piece of wood (huge force times small distance = same work). The stored energy does not degrade one iota over time: in that sense it represents perfect long-term storage.

The idea for pumped hydro storage is that we can pump a mass of water up into a reservoir (shelf), and later retrieve this energy at will—barring evaporative loss. Pumps and turbines (often implemented as the same physical unit, actually) can be something like 90% efficient, so the round-trip storage comes at only modest cost.

*Raccoon Mountain pumped storage concept.*

The main problem with gravitational storage is that it is incredibly weak compared to chemical, compressed air, or flywheel techniques (see the post on home energy storage options). For example, to get the amount of energy stored in a single AA battery, we would have to lift 100 kg (220 lb) 10 m (33 ft) to match it. To match the energy contained in a gallon of gasoline, we would have to lift 13 tons of water (3500 gallons) one kilometer high (3,280 feet). It is clear that the energy density of gravitational storage is severely disadvantaged.

What we lack in energy density, we make up in volume. Lakes of water behind dams, for instance represent substantial storage.

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