Dreaming of pumped hydro

Frank McDonald keeps the dream alive in today’s Irish Times.

I have had no new insights since May 2009, but SEI & UCD organized an event where most speakers agreed with my assessment: Pumped hydro is just too expensive.

40 replies on “Dreaming of pumped hydro”

This is “news”? Clearly that IT article should be an op-ed.

Also, it’s telling that they still won’t/can’t give anyone an idea of what it would cost. Again with the “thousands of jobs”. I sincerely hope the talk of the Dept CENR aren’t actually getting involved…

Does this mean that a plan to fill a valley and use it for pumped hydro won’t win the Your Country Your Call prize? Sounds like the guys from Steorn are definitely going to win now.

They did not ask me to be an the jury of YCYC, so the Spirit of Ireland is in with a chance: They promise all the right things, and have great graphics.


Beautiful graphics indeed (so do Steorn actually – must be a pre-requisite!)Does anyone in the market actually take Spirit of Ireland seriously?

I have yet to meet someone with credentials in energy who supports the Spirit of Ireland. That is not to say that they should not be taken seriously. After all, NAMA had little support by experts.

I like Steorn much better than SoI. Steorn openly admits that its technology violates the laws of physics. But it wants you to buy their stuff anyway. Truth in advertising is a great good.

The concept is fairly simple folks, smooth energy supplies from variable sources using pumped storage hydro, thereby ensuring security of supply and good prices, similar to the interconnector (look up European supergrid). It has been used very effectively in many countries, including Germany quite recently, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t work just as well here. Comparing it to Steorn is just silly.

Pumped hydro does not violate the laws of physics. It’s a proven technology, in fact. It has also proven to be much more expensive than the alternatives.


Conventional pumped hydro IS expensive to install, however its benefits are beyond reproach and it is an established tech, how much better that S of I will now do the job much more cost effectively.

What are your main concerns about seawater pumped hydro.

See previous post.

I would be very excited if SoI has indeed reduced the cost of pumped hydro. They have yet to demonstrate that, and I will continue to disbelieve their claims until they come up with a sound plan.


Lets assume for a moment that we can stand up the figures, would you agree that storage plus renewables are a better match than renewables plus open cycle gas turbines.

I am under no illusions by the way that we can easily replace imported hydrocarbons with our renewable resources, however it is easy to replace a portion at a time.

I am in fact quite interested in recent statements from oil producers regarding the newly arrived concept of peak oil demand as opposed to peak oil.

What are your views on the concept of Ireland becoming an energy exporter. Of course in order to be able to compete, our costs would have to match or better those prevailing in the destination country, but that is looking quite favourable at the moment.

To be a successful exporter, you’d need to offer a better product at a lower price than the competition.

Wind is expensive. Pumped hydro is expensive. Long-distance power transport is expensive.

Ireland may become a net exporter of electricity because Great Britain has a dysfunctional planning system, not because Ireland has a comparative advantage in power generation.

I would agree that its not the norm, but then again its not suitable for many environments, none of which actually addresses the point I rasied. What might be an interesting exercise would be to compare the cost of importing enough gas, coal, oil and other fuels for the purposes of electricity generation annually into Ireland and weighing that against a smoothed supply from energy we pluck out of thin air over say a twenty year period?

Graham Brennan in SEI has gone on record as stating that we could produce the overwhelming majority of our electrical needs from wind power using readily available sites. In addition we have offshore and blue water resources to consider, plus the advantages of having our first major domestic export industry, something the country badly needs, should we then decide to begin manufacturing wind turbine components.

Remove all other fuel subsidies in Europe and Russia then stack up wind against them in terms of costs, you might be surprised. The usual response is that we don’t pay those subsidies here so it doesn’t matter – it will matter the next time Russia decides to play “who’s got the biggest reserves” over some diplomatic tussle AGAIN.

No one disagrees that it’s technically feasible to provide for all our electricity demand with wind and pumped hydro. It will probably quadruple the price of electricity, but we could do it if we wanted to.

Why would someone want to manufacture wind turbines in Ireland for export? The trend is towards Eastern Europe.


You correctly state

“Wind is expensive. Pumped hydro is expensive. Long-distance power transport is expensive.”

I would be quite pleased to to buy you a cup of coffee and give you an update on work done on all of those subjects, and I have in fact read almost all of the peer reviewed literature, including those of your colleagues on these subjects, perhaps Laura might join us as I particularly enjoyed her paper on interconnection.

Problems exist to be solved and the particular problems we are discussing lie in in the easier to solve range.

Denmark manages to employ 30,000 people with €4 billion in annual exports each year on the strength of its wind industry. There is no reason similar could not be achieved here in Ireland. The myth of manufacturing trending towards poorer countries is derailed by countries like Germany and Japan, some of the highest paid people in the world, with an excellent standard of living, and some of the largest exporters on earth as well.

I note you’ve completely avoided my point on cost comparisons over time and fuel supply stability and subsidies.

The Chinese seem to have great faith in PSH by the way:

* Gangnan, Heibei (1968), 11 MW
* Miyun, Beijing (1973), 22 MW
* Panjiakou, Hebei (1992), 270 MW
* Cuntangkou, Sichuan (1992), 2 MW
* Guangzhou I, Guangdong (1994), 1,200 MW
* Shisanling, Beijing (1997), 800 MW
* Yangzhuoyonghu, Xizang (1997), 90 MW
* Xikou, Zhejiang (1998), 80 MW
* Tianhuangping (2000), 1,800 MW
* Guangzhou II, Guangdong (2000), 1,200 MW
* Xianghongdian, Anhui (2000), 80 MW
* Tiantang, Hubei (2001), 70 MW
* Shahe, Jiangsu (2002), 100 MW
* Tongbai, Zhejiang (2006), 1,200 MW
* Baishan, Jilin (2006), 300 MW
* Huilong, Henan (2005), 120 MW
* Tai’an, Shandong (2007), 1,000 MW
* Langyashan, Anhui (2007), 600 MW
* Zhanghewan, Hebei (2008), 1,000 MW
* Yixing, Jiangsu (2008), 1,000 MW
* Xilongchi, Shanxi (2008), 1,200 MW
* Huizhou, Guangdong (2008), 2,400 MW
* Baoquan, Henan (2009), 1,200 MW
* Heimifeng, Hunan (2009), 1,200 MW
* Fomo, Anhui (2008), 160 MW
* Bailianhe, Hubei (2009), 1,200 MW
* Pushihe, Liaoning (u/c 2010), 1,200 MW
* Xiangshuijian, Anhui (u/c 2011), 1,000 MW
* Huhhot, Inner Mongolia (u/c 2012), 1,200 MW
* Xianyou, Fujian (u/c 2012), 1,200 MW
* Xianju, Zhejiang (u/c 2013), 1,500 MW
* Hongping, Jiangxi (proposed), 1,200 MW in phase I, 1,200 MW in phase II, another 1,200 MW is proposed to add to be world’s largest
* Huanggou, Heilongjianf (proposed), 1,200 MW
* Qingyuan, Guangdong (proposed), 1,280 MW
* Wendeng, Shandong (proposed), 1,800 MW
* Tianchi, Henan (proposed), 1,200 MW
* Dongjiang, Hunan (proposed), 500 MW
* Fengning, Hebei (proposed), 1,500 MW
* Liyang, Jiangsu (u/c 2017), 1,500 MW
* Hengren, Liaoning (proposed), 800 MW
* Panlong, Chongqing (proposed), 1,200 MW
* Tianhuangping II, Zhejiang (proposed), 2,100 MW
* Qingyuan, Liaoning (proposed), 1,500 MW
* Mashan, Jiangsu (proposed), 700 MW
* Shenzhen, Guangdong (proposed), 1,200 MW
* Zulaishan, Shandong (proposed), 1,800 MW
* Wulongshan, Zhejiang (proposed), 2,400 MW
* Wuyuanshan, Jiangsu (proposed), 1,500 MW
* Baoquan II, Henan (proposed), 1,200 MW
* Zhuhai, Jiangsu (proposed), 1,800 MW
* Yongtai, Fujian (proposed), 1,200 MW
* Dunhua, Jilin (proposed), 1,200 MW
* Yangjiang, Guangdong (proposed), 2,400 MW
* Banqiaoyu, Beijing (proposed), 1,000 MW

@Ronan Burke,

The PSH capacity installed in China at end-2009 comprises approx. 2% of total installed capacity. Even if all the projects you have indicated were implemented this percentage would probably increase to 3.5%. I think the SoI folks are being a bit more ambitious than this.

From the limited amount I have seen, I reckon there may be scope for some PSH of this nature in 20-25 years when the open cycle gas turbines that are being planned to supplement wind generation are coming to the end of their useful lives.


You have put your finger on a political hot potato and as I have written extensively, this problem can be neatly sidestepped. There is a lot of capital invested in the Irish energy industry and it is very important that none of this capital is destroyed, we have had quite enough of that phenomenon already.

Equally we must encourage as much economic activity and job creation as possible, Richard has already brought up the subject of interconnection and would seem to agree that there is a market in Britain and so interconnection as an export route is what we must concentrate on.

Laura Malaguzzi Valeri of the ERSI has written a very good paper on the economics of interconnection, however there is perhaps a good reason to examine an interconnector as capitalised nfrastructure rather than a business in itself.

I would be interested in viewpoints on this subject


I see you are both converted and optimistic, but there are some fundamental economic problems with the EU internal electricity (and gas) market project. I set them out in response to Colm McCarthy’s contention that eletcricity generation, once externalities are addressed, is a pure private good. I reproduce the text here for convenience:

“The progressive roll-out of retail competition not just in Ireland, but in the UK and throughout the EU is destroying the ability to convert the long term commitment of final consumers to pay for secure and reliable supply of electricity on demand into bankable long term contractual commitments to finance the provision of generation, bulk supply and network services. These assets are specific and long-lived. Investment in these assets must be underpinned by long term commitments to ensure full recovery. Competing retailers focusing on short-term market share and customer churn are neither willing nor able, on their own, to enter into these commitments. They have no ability to lock-in the customer base whose revenue is required over the long term to enter into these commitments. Therefore, irrespective of the short-term prices in the wholesale market or the capacity payments awarded annually, investors are reluctant to commit the necessary long-term finance – unless some policy and regulatory guarantees are provided.

As a result, power generation is no longer purely private – and this chicken is coming home to roost in Britain – the most private sector-based industry in the EU – and increasingly in other member-states. It may seem like heresy for an economist to contend that competition at the retail level is the problem and not the solution, but short term wholesale markets in which retailers participate- that are often illiquid – provide neither the price signals nor the assurance of investment recovery required.

In terms of curtailing the incumbent’s generation market share, of developing the all-island market and of financing network investment, Ireland has moved out onto a limb – and consumers increasingly are being burdened by the resulting excessive costs. And bigger burdens are on their way to meet the Green Party’s decarbonisation agenda.”

I suppose my simple point is it makes no sense to even think about bolting a large-scale project such as that envisaged by SoI onto a sector that exhibits such serious policy and regulatory dysfunction.

We need to get back to some basic economics, address the policy and regulatory issues and then, perhaps, it may be possible to assess the SoI project in a proper context and on its own merits. Until then, it’s just labour in vain.


I must attend a meeting, however I do indeed see your points and perhaps there are indeed some basic steps to be taken


you need to learn the difference between power and energy. providing 1000MW power from pumped storage for a few hours is a different proposition to backing up an inherently unreliable power source such as wind.

spirit of ireland propose backup for a few days. but wind speeds vary also on longer time-scales, from weeks to years. the proposal does not give “energy independence” or solve the intermittency problem. it just reduces it somewhat, no doubt at staggering cost.

but hey, this is ireland, who cares about some silly principles physics or of finance?

@Paul: PSH capacity is not capacity in the traditional sense as you need to expend energy to do the pumping in the first place. Its not a hydroelectric dam, its a big battery. Therefore saying that it amounts to 3% of capacity doesn’t actually make much sense.

The list was put there to illustrate the point that if PSH was expensive and pointless, the ultra-cost-sensitive Chinese would have nothing to do with it.

@bg: It does in fact solve intermittency problems, thats the whole point. A further point is that with sufficient installed capacity at geographically disparate locations the odds of ever being run to zero are extremely small, and you’ll have plenty of time to get the gas generators fired up if that does happen.

Here’s a wind map of Ireland:
Circled number is % calm.

Mean annual wind speed:

If the wind starts to drop over a course of years we’ll have a lot bigger problems than generating electricity since the Gulf stream will have gone and we’ll be buried under a kilometer of ice.

@Ronan Burke
“Denmark manages to employ 30,000 people with €4 billion in annual exports each year on the strength of its wind industry. There is no reason similar could not be achieved here in Ireland. ”

Perhaps, but highly unlikely now. Denmark had first mover advantage in this sector, strating after the 1970s oil shocks and building on an existing engineering industry (mainly, agricultural engineering).
Denmark also had tax breaks for investors in wind energy and guaranteed prices for the output, in the form of a feed-in tariff on a “grid must-take” basis.
Fine if you are building competence and capacity in a new industry which you hope will be export oriented, where most of the money circulates within your own economy. It is a form of market making by the public sector – not unlike defence spending or medical research or space research or even early stage IT in the US. If I remember correctly, during the early stages, Intel’s only customers were US military buyers.

I would like to believe you are right. Have I missed something?
Why focus on what seems to be a simplistic “me too” – years after the conosolidation has taken lace in the original host of wind turbine manufacturers?
During the 1980s and 1990s, companies like Aldiscon, Riverdance and Ryanair did produce goods/services in Ireland that were new and different.
We need to ensure that there are sufficient people and resources available for similar kinds of innovation to emerge here again.
As Colm McCarthy points out in another post, perhaps a do nothing policy on wind turbine manufacturing is now the best policy.

@Donal O’Brolchain As you say Donal, feeding these startup industries with domestic demand at the beginning is the best way forward. I wouldn’t worry about the first to market advantage held by certain countries and companies, if that was all it cracked up to be there would only ever be one manufacturer in any market. We’ve shown we can attract and hold mobile FDI for the most part, it should be easier if anything to build our own manufacturing base.

An opportunity exists and we should take that chance, the question to be asked is what alternative is there. We have to stand on our own two feet sooner or later. I think that SoI’s proposal works on its own merits, there are further reports to be produced so we shall see as they say.

An important statistic to bear in mind is that in order to meet our carbon targets, and depending on the growth scenario you choose to use, we might have to plant a 7MW turbine in the ground every between now and jan 2020, the current factory output of these turbines is about one a month.

We did lose first mover advantage on utility scale wind turbines, perhaps it would be a good idea not do similar with wave devices and it is heartening that the Dept of Energy and SEI are indeed alive to this possibility, wave however also needs dispatch mediation.

I missed out a word in my last post. Please read

We might have to plant a 7 MW turbine everyday between now and 2020

@ Pat

Were’ not going to meet our carbon targets! (discuss)
And surely, if we are going to set a carbon level it should be spliced with other metrics: If the economy tanks we should be less rigid in aiming to the level. If we have growth we should aim high???


When I eead this piece I checked the date on the newspaper, assuming I had missed a month and it was in fact April 1st!


I suppose the problem is that we must, as you suggest, align our carbon targets with energy policy.

This, in all fairness to the people charged with the problem is not an easy task and in fact is a problem faced by governments everywhere and particularly in Europe.

I am very confident that the technology is now available or is very close to being available, in order to help the policy makers make the correct adjustments.


I have just discovered this tweeting universe and am busy learning the etiquette and rules of engagement. It seems the older you get, the more you must learn.

I am just about to enter what is described as middle age and I can honestly remember being a pre teen, and experiencing the excitement as some of my cousins, in areas of greater Dublin received electricity for the first time in the late sixties and early seventies.

I can also remember a lot of the arguments, including economic arguments, being used by people opposed to the need or even the concept of commercial radio and television.

Are there parallels to this debate, I suppose time will tell.

I am aware that these projects often involve private parties and private finance. This gives the chance of derivatives to be used, reducing the apparent cost for the public party, as with Gold in sacks and the Danaos.

We should stick to those projects that we can finance from own resources. Unless we pull a “channel tunnel” on the lenders. Don’t see much chance of that.

@Pat Gill,

SoI would do all Irish citizens a great service if it were to concentrate, initially, on the dysfunctional nature of policy and regulation in the electricity and gas sectors. Major reform is required before the feasibility of any large-scale investments may be considered.

You can get away with all sorts in China with respect to flooding land (see Three Gorges). Should we in Ireland reduce our EIS requirements to similar levels? Because to get into the hundreds of MW range that’s probably what it’s going to take.

Also, anyone who thinks flooding land is “beyond reproach” environmentally needs to look at what happens via anaerobic decay to the vegetation thus flooded.

I note the 2400MW proposed plant in Guangdong has a nearby nuclear power plant. I wonder if the two are related. After all, nukes are hard to throttle down which is why they are usually baseload and thus often run surplus at night, thus providing oodles of cheap power to store. This then leads me to wonder exactly how many of Ronan’s list will actually be driven by wind turbines.

Also – would it be mechanically more efficient and less complex engineering wise to use old school windmills to push the water uphill and down via single-direction turbines, rather than using electric wind turbines to generate energy and drive a two way turbine?

I would prefer to see a somewhat more balanced (if not necessarily sceptical) article on this topic from the Environment Editor of Ireland’s most influential newspaper. He appears to have consulted no one bar, well, a proponent of the scheme.

Compare this to George Monbiot in the Guardian Like Frank McDonald his convictions on the need to ‘do something’ about climate change are not in doubt. Yet he’s prepared to call a government policy to that end (subsidies in the UK for solar panels) completely inappropriate and a huge waste of money.

“salt water and the Atlantic Ocean as the lower reservoir. I have not changed my mind during the week or indeed the year, but Organic Power works at a more realistic scale than Spirit of Ireland;”

It is only fair to state that the members of the Spirit of Ireland group are working on more than their own project and much of the work being done will result in companies such as Organic Power and others being able to progress their own projects in a more welcoming environment

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