A Pumped Hydro Energy-Storage Renaissance

Storage plants built for nuclear power are being revamped for wind and solar

3 min read
A Pumped Hydro Energy-Storage Renaissance
Uphill Both Ways: Renewable energy is driving construction of pumped hydro storage plants in Switzerland and elsewhere.
Photo: AXPO Services

Pumping water uphillto store energy in hydropower reservoirs is an idea that, by power grid standards, is as old as the hills that such “pumped storage” plants are built on. But with the rise of intermittent solar energy and wind power, this technology could soon experience a revival, experts say.

Japan is positioned to lead this renaissance. It has the largest number of pumped storage plants, capable of absorbing and discharging 26 gigawatts of power. Those plants are also technology leaders whose variable-speed pumps, developed in the 1990s, are uniquely adapted to shifting energy flows.

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An illustration of pipes going around from hot to cold behind a chinese animal statue on a pedestal.

Jutting out from the coast of China’s Fujian province, Changbiao Island may seem small and unremarkable. It is anything but. This is where the China National Nuclear Corp. is building two fast-neutron nuclear breeder reactors, the first of which is slated to connect to the grid in 2023, the second in 2026. So China could start producing weapons-grade plutonium there very soon.

They are called breeder reactors because they produce more nuclear fuel than they consume. According to Chinese authorities, the ones on Changbiao are civilian power reactors, designed to generate 600 megawatts of electricity each, which amounts to a little more than 1 percent of the total capacity of China’s nuclear power sector. But each reactor could also yield up to 200 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium each year, enough for about 50 nuclear warheads—which is making nuclear-arms-control experts in Western countries nervous.

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