For the past decade, the price of low-carbon energy sources has fallen at an astonishing rate. Electricity from newly built wind turbines is 70% cheaper than it was 10 years ago and electricity from solar panels is 90% cheaper.

But to take full advantage of the falling price of wind and solar power, we need to find a way to store the electricity from these sources, so it can be used when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

In the rapidly expanding field of energy storage, the development of large-scale batteries gets a lot of attention. But there’s another much simpler solution that’s ready to go today — pumped-storage hydropower — especially in Western U.S.

Pumped-storage hydropower has been used for decades. During times of low energy demand, surplus renewable electricity on the power grid is used to pump water uphill into a reservoir. Later, when demand is higher, the stored water is released. As it flows back downhill, the water runs through a hydroelectric generator, sending electricity back to the power grid.

Flipping the switch

It’s a remarkably efficient energy storage technology. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, pumped storage returns roughly 80% of the electricity it consumes to the power grid — on par with much newer battery storage technologies.

But the expanded use of pumped-storage hydropower is being held back. The problem has nothing to do with the technology — instead it’s red tape.

Across the country, there are 67 pumped-storage hydropower projects in various stages of planning, according to 2021 data from the National Hydropower Association. Together, these projects would add 52.5 gigawatts of storage capacity to the power grid, almost tripling the amount of energy storage that’s in use today nationwide.

However, the national association says only three of the 67 proposed projects have received authorization from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, “and none have begun construction.” These regulatory delays are a bigger deal in the western U.S. than other parts of the country, because more than 60% of the proposed projects would be built to support our region’s power grid.

In Utah, for example, there are six pumped-hydro storage projects waiting on regulatory approvals, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee.

In Wyoming, a single storage project that’s been proposed in the heart of coal country would represent a $2.5 billion infrastructure investment, according to rPlus Hydro, the company behind the project.

In Nevada, rPlus is planning another large-scale pumped-storage hydropower project, estimated to be worth roughly $2 billion.

Besides supporting the power grid and allowing greater use of renewable electricity at all hours of the day and night, the Wyoming and Nevada projects will create roughly 500 construction jobs and 35 permanent jobs each, according to company estimates.

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If you’re wondering why Western states are getting so much attention from pumped-hydro storage developers, it’s because of our mountain geography. 

As the National Hydropower Association explains: “Using electricity from the grid to pump water from a lower elevation, (pumped-storage hydropower) creates potential energy in the form of water stored at an upper elevation.” Needless to say, in the West, we have no shortage of “upper elevation” to work with. 

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It’s time for governors, state legislatures and members of Congress to figure out the causes of the permitting backlog for pumped-storage hydropower projects and get these projects moving. That should be easier in the West, because as the NHA notes, many of the projects in our region “are off-river or closed loop meaning they have fewer environmental impacts.”

To be sure, water is a sensitive subject in the West. But we have an opportunity to use our water resources wisely to lead the nation in energy storage and increase the use of renewable sources of electricity.

Surely, that’s something that project developers, grid operators, electricity consumers and even environmental activist groups can get behind.

Steve Handy is a former state legislator and the Utah director for The Western Way, an organization focused on market-competitive solutions to environmental and conservation challenges.

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