The world’s biggest battery is a dam

The Hoover Dam was one of the biggest engineering projects of the 20th century.

It took five years to complete and used enough concrete to build a coast-to-coast motorway across the US.

112 workers died during its construction in the 1930s, including three suicides. And there are claims that a further 42 deaths, officially caused by pneumonia, were actually due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Today, the dam supplies the US with 4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year – enough for 1.3 million people.

Now, this iconic structure may soon support the next wave of renewable energy constructions across California.

The $3 billion plan is to turn the Hoover Dam into a gigantic battery, so it can store the excess energy generated by solar and wind farms.

From The New York Times:

Engineers propose building a pump station about 20 miles downstream from the main reservoir, Lake Mead, the nation’s largest artificial lake. A pipeline would run partly or fully underground, depending on the location ultimately approved.

“Hoover Dam is ideal for this,” said Kelly Sanders, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California. “It’s a gigantic plant. We don’t have anything on the horizon as far as batteries of that magnitude.”

Sri Narayan, a chemistry professor at the university, said his studies of lithium-ion batteries showed that they simply weren’t ready to store the loads needed to manage all of the wind and solar power coming online.

“With lithium-ion batteries, you have durability issues,” Mr. Narayan said. “If they last five to 10 years, that would be a stretch, especially because we expect to use these facilities at full capacity. It has to be 10 times more durable than it is today.”

Because that’s the thing about renewable energy. It’s great when it’s working. But storing its excess energy and dealing with peak demand can be a major issue.

As stated in the above New York Times piece, traditional batteries can go some way to fixing these problems. But lithium batteries are expensive, don’t last very long and their performance massively deteriorates over time.

There are also big concerns over just how environmentally friendly these batteries are.

From Wired:

According to a report by Friends of the Earth, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, locals claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used by humans and livestock, and for crop irrigation. In Chile, there have been clashes between mining companies and local communities, who say that lithium mining is leaving the landscape marred by mountains of discarded salt and canals filled with contaminated water with an unnatural blue hue.

“Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells,” said Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile, in a 2009 interview. “This isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”

The way a dam battery works is like this:

  1. Excess energy from solar and wind is used to power a pump to move water upstream.
  2. This water is then stored in a reservoir or lake and when it is needed it flows through turbines in the dam, creating massive amounts of electricity.

It’s an incredibly simple solution. But it works very well. And it doesn’t need any lithium batteries to do so.

Another plus is that once it’s set up it can run for decades, at relatively low cost, whereas lithium batteries need to be replaced every few years.

However, this latest Hoover Dam project isn’t without its detractors.

From that same New York Times piece:

Among the considerations is the effect on bighorn sheep that roam Black Canyon, just below the dam, and on drinking water for places like Bullhead City. Some environmentalists worry that adding a pump facility would impair water flow farther downstream, in particular at the Colorado River Delta, a mostly dry riverbed in Mexico that no longer connects to the sea.

Another concern is that the pump station would draw water from or close to Lake Mohave, where water enthusiasts boat, fish, ride Jet-Skis, kayak and canoe.

But I guess these concerns are fairly minor compared to the destruction and pollution that fossil fuel plants cause.

The big question now is, will the feds approve of it?

The Hoover Dam sits on federal land. And so the Bureau of Reclamation must approve of the plans before anything can go ahead.

“We’re aware of the concept, but at this point our regional management has not seen the concept in enough detail to know where we would stand on the overall project,” said Doug Hendrix, a bureau spokesman, to The New York Times.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see whether the $3 billion plan gets approved.

But it certainly seems like a great idea. And one that could inspire myriad similar projects around the world.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor 

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Category: Energy

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