Pumped-storage hydroelectricity is a type of hydroelectric power generation used by some power plants for load balancing. The method stores energy in the form of water, pumped from a lower elevation reservoir to a higher elevation. Low-cost off-peak electric power is used to run the pumps. During periods of high electrical demand, the stored water is released through turbines. Although the losses of the pumping process makes the plant a net consumer of energy overall, the system increases revenue by selling more electricity during periods of peak demand, when electricity prices are highest. Pumped storage is the largest-capacity form of grid energy storage now available.

Pumped Storage Hydroelectricity

At times of low electrical demand, excess generation capacity is used to pump water into the higher reservoir. When there is higher demand, water is released back into the lower reservoir through a turbine, generating electricity. Reversible turbine/generator assemblies act as pump and turbine (usually a Francis turbine design). Some facilities use abandoned mines as the lower reservoir, but many use the height difference between two natural bodies of water or artificial reservoirs. Pure pumped-storage plants just shift the water between reservoirs, but combined pump-storage plants also generate their own electricity like conventional hydroelectric plants through natural stream-flow. Plants that do not use pumped-storage are referred to as conventional hydroelectric plants; conventional hydroelectric plants that have significant storage capacity may be able to play a similar role in the electrical grid as pumped storage, by deferring output until needed.

Taking into account evaporation losses from the exposed water surface and conversion losses, approximately 70% to 85% of the electrical energy used to pump the water into the elevated reservoir can be regained. The technique is currently the most cost-effective means of storing large amounts of electrical energy on an operating basis, but capital costs and the presence of appropriate geography are critical decision factors.

The relatively low energy density of pumped storage systems requires either a very large body of water or a large variation in height. For example, 1000 kilograms of water (1 cubic meter) at the top of a 100 meter tower has a potential energy of about 0.272 kW·h (capable of raising the temperature of the same amount of water by only 0.23 Celsius = 0.42 Fahrenheit). The only way to store a significant amount of energy is by having a large body of water located on a hill relatively near, but as high as possible above, a second body of water. In some places this occurs naturally, in others one or both bodies of water have been man-made.

This system may be economical because it flattens out load variations on the power grid, permitting thermal power stations such as coal-fired plants and nuclear power plants and renewable energy power plants that provide base-load electricity to continue operating at peak efficiency (Base load power plants), while reducing the need for "peaking" power plants that use costly fuels. However, capital costs for purpose-built hydrostorage are high.

Along with energy management, pumped storage systems help control electrical network frequency and provide reserve generation. Thermal plants are much less able to respond to sudden changes in electrical demand, potentially causing frequency and voltage instability. Pumped storage plants, like other hydroelectric plants, can respond to load changes within seconds.

The first use of pumped storage was in the 1890s in Italy and Switzerland. In the 1930s reversible hydroelectric turbines became available. These turbines could operate as both turbine-generators and in reverse as electric motor driven pumps. The latest in large-scale engineering technology are variable speed machines for greater efficiency. These machines generate in synchronisation with the network frequency, but operate asynchronously (independent of the network frequency) as motor-pumps.

A new use for pumped storage is to level the fluctuating output of intermittent power sources. The pumped storage absorbs load at times of high output and low demand, while providing additional peak capacity. In certain jurisdictions, electricity prices may be close to zero or occasionally negative (Ontario in early September, 2006), indicating there is more generation than load available to absorb it; although at present this is rarely due to wind alone, increased wind generation may increase the likelihood of such occurrences. It is particularly likely that pumped storage will become especially important as a balance for very large scale photovoltaic generation.

Pumped Storage is Potential technologies

The use of underground reservoirs as lower dams has been investigated. Salt mines could be used, although ongoing and unwanted dissolution of salt could be a problem. If they prove affordable, underground systems might greatly expand the number of pumped storage sites. Saturated brine is about 20% more dense than fresh water.

A new concept is to use wind turbines or solar power to drive water pumps directly, in effect an 'Energy Storing Wind or Solar Dam'. This could provide a more efficient process and usefully smooth out the variability of energy captured from the wind or sun.

One can use pumped sea water to store the energy. A potential example of this could be used in a tidal barrage or tidal lagoon. A potential benefit of this arises if seawater is allowed to flow behind the barrage or into the lagoon at high tide when the water level is roughly equal either side of the barrier, when the potential energy difference is close to zero. Then water is released at low tide when a head of water has been built up behind the barrier, when there is a far greater potential energy difference between the two bodies of water. The result being that when the energy used to pump the water is recovered, it will have multiplied to a degree depending on the head of water built up. A further enhancement is to pump more water at high tide further increasing the head with for example intermittent renewable. Downsides: the generator must be below sea level, and marine organisms would tend to grow on the equipment and disrupt operation. This is not a major problem for the EDF La Rance Tidal power station in France.

Instead of pumping water uphill, the pumped storage idea can be inverted, pumping air under water.