Want energy storage? Here are 22,000 sites for pumped hydro across Australia

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The race is on for storage solutions that can help provide secure, reliable electricity supply as more renewables enter Australia’s electricity grid.

Pumped hydro sites in Australia
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The Conversation

The race is on for storage solutions that can help provide secure, reliable electricity supply as more renewables enter Australia’s electricity grid.

With the support of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), we have identified 22,000 potential pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) sites across all states and territories of Australia. PHES can readily be developed to balance the grid with any amount of solar and wind power, all the way up to 100%, as ageing coal-fired power stations close.

Solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind are now the leading two generation technologies in terms of new capacity installed worldwide each year, with coal in third spot (see below).

PV and wind are likely to accelerate away from other generation technologies because of their lower cost, large economies of scale, low greenhouse emissions, and the vast availability of sunshine and wind.

New generation capacity installed worldwide in 2016
New generation capacity installed worldwide in 2016

Although PV and wind are variable energy resources, the approaches to support them to achieve a reliable 100% renewable electricity grid are straightforward:

  • Energy storage in the form of pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) and batteries, coupled with demand management; and
  • Strong interconnection of the electricity grid between states using high-voltage power lines spanning long distances (in the case of the National Electricity Market, from North Queensland to South Australia). This allows wind and PV generation to access a wide range of weather, climate and demand patterns, greatly reducing the amount of storage needed.

PHES accounts for 97% of energy storage worldwide because it is the cheapest form of large-scale energy storage, with an operational lifetime of 50 years or more. Most existing PHES systems require dams located in river valleys. However, off-river PHES has vast potential.

Off-river PHES requires pairs of modestly sized reservoirs at different altitudes, typically with an area of 10 to 100 hectares.

The reservoirs are joined by a pipe with a pump and turbine. Water is pumped uphill when electricity generation is plentiful; then, when generation tails off, electricity can be dispatched on demand by releasing the stored water downhill through the turbine.

Off-river PHES typically delivers maximum power for between five and 25 hours, depending on the size of the reservoirs.

Most of the potential PHES sites we have identified in Australia are off-river. All 22,000 of them are outside national parks and urban areas.

Potential pumped hydro storage sites

hydro storage sites

The locations of these sites are shown below. Each site has between 1 gigawatt-hour (GWh) and 300GWh of storage potential. To put this in perspective, our earlier research showed that Australia needs just 450GWh of storage capacity (and 20GW of generation power) spread across a few dozen sites to support a 100% renewable electricity system.

In other words, Australia has so many good sites for PHES that only the best 0.1% of them will be needed. Developers can afford to be choosy with this significant oversupply of sites.

Pumped hydro sites in Australia
Pumped hydro sites in Australia

Here is a state-by-state breakdown of sites (detailed maps of sites, images and information can be found here):

NSW/ACT: Thousands of sites scattered over the eastern third of the state

Victoria: Thousands of sites scattered over the eastern half of the state

Tasmania: Thousands of sites scattered throughout the state outside national parks

Queensland: Thousands of sites along the Great Dividing Range within 200km of the coast, including hundreds in the vicinity of the many wind and PV farms currently being constructed in the state

South Australia: Moderate number of sites, mostly in the hills east of Port Pirie and Port Augusta

Western Australia: Concentrations of sites in the east Kimberley (around Lake Argyle), the Pilbara and the Southwest; some are near mining sites including Kalgoorlie. Fewer large hills than other states, and so the minimum height difference has been set at 200m rather than 300m.

Northern Territory: Many sites about 300km south-southwest of Darwin; a few sites within 200km of Darwin; many good sites in the vicinity of Alice Springs. Minimum height difference also set at 200m.

The maps below show synthetic Google Earth images for potential upper reservoirs in two site-rich regions (more details on the site search are available here). There are many similarly site-rich regions across Australia. The larger reservoirs shown in each image are of such a scale that only about a dozen of similar size distributed across the populated regions of Australia would be required to stabilise a 100% renewable electricity system.

Araluen Valley near Canberra. At most, one of the sites shown would be developed
Araluen Valley near Canberra. At most, one of the sites shown would be developed


Townsville, Queensland. At most, one of the sites shown would be developed
Townsville, Queensland. At most, one of the sites shown would be developed

The chart below shows the largest identified off-river PHES site in each state in terms of energy storage potential. Also shown for comparison are the Tesla battery and the solar thermal systems to be installed in South Australia, and the proposed Snowy 2.0 system.

Largest identified off-river PHES sites in each state, together with other storage systems for comparison
Largest identified off-river PHES sites in each state, together with other storage systems for comparison

The map below shows the location of PHES sites in Queensland together with PV and wind farms currently in an advanced stage of development, as well as the location of the Galilee coal prospect. It is clear that developers of PV and wind farms will be able to find a PHES site close by if needed for grid balancing.

Solar PV (yellow) and wind (green) farms currently in an advanced stage of development in Queensland, together with the Galilee coal prospect (black) and potential PHES sites (blue)
Solar PV (yellow) and wind (green) farms currently in an advanced stage of development in Queensland, together with the Galilee coal prospect (black) and potential PHES sites (blue)

Annual water requirements of a PHES-supported 100% renewable electricity grid would be less than one third that of the current fossil fuel system, because wind and PV do not require cooling water.

About 3,600ha of PHES reservoir is required to support a 100% renewable electricity grid for Australia, which is 0.0005% of Australia’s land area, and far smaller than the area of existing water storages.

PHES, batteries and demand management are all likely to have prominent roles as the grid transitions to 50-100% renewable energy.

Currently, about 3GW per year of wind and PV are being installed. If this continued until 2030 it would be enough to supply half of Australia’s electricity consumption. If this rate is doubled then Australia will reach 100% renewable electricity in about 2033.

Fast-track development of a few excellent PHES sites can be completed in 2022 to balance the grid when Liddell and other coal-fired power stations close.

Source: The ConversationReproduced with permission.

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  1. Alastair Taylor 3 years ago

    Recommend downloading the .kmz files from the ANU: http://re100.eng.anu.edu.au/research/phes/

    Specifically in Victoria (download all three .kmz) – fire them up in Google Earth and go find Lake Thompson (due east of Melbourne – owned/operated by Melbourne Water) – there’s multiple sites in the 4-8GWh range located ~700-900m above the lake on the eastern side of the Baw Baw massif.

    Assuming Lake Thompson is the lower reservoir in the scenario, it’s about ~50km from the Hazelwood-South Morang 2 x 500kv transmission easement (and would require a new one from there to the dam to connect everything up).

    Other interesting sites – in terms of being located near existing transmission assets:
    – the Dederang substation in North East Vic (where the NSW lines and Dartmouth/Eildon/Kiewa lines all meet) is surrounded on three sides by potential sites.
    – Eildon (another lower reservoir candidate) has a few just to the north east of the main body of the lake.
    – the most westerly sites appear to be right next to the Ararat Wind Farm.
    – a plethora of sites in the Strzeleckis (between the La Trobe Valley and Yarram) – the Star of the South offshore wind farm is proposed out that way, good local storage – may a double-whammy wind + phes opportunity?

  2. RobertO 3 years ago

    Hi all PHES less than 1/3 of the current fossel fuel system of H2O must have a few leaks of serious size. Losses should be about 10-15% at the most and there are engineering designs that can reduce losses (it becomes a balancing act between water loss and power loss). In China they are experminting with covering the ponds with solar panels to reduce losses of H2O. Some sites may get as low as 1-3% losses, say the bottom of mine shafts once sealed lose almost 0%. It all very easy to do this so long as engineers pick the best sites (best bang for you buck) and not the pollies (best bank for my pocket pollie).

  3. Catprog 3 years ago

    A quick look at the data shows many sites are below 400m and the calculations are done assuming 400m head.

    And if they do not have a lower resivour at 0m the head will be much lower then their calculations.

  4. solarguy 3 years ago

    Excellent Andrew et al. What sort of money are we looking at to build say a 1GWh PHES and what time line to construct it in an ideal location?

    In your opinion would Snowy 2.0 be too costly compared to other sites that add up to the same capacity?

    Excuse my ignorance, but how do we fill a top dam at any site that’s off river, pump it from a river in the first instance?

  5. Joe 3 years ago

    PHES isn’t this what Mr Sanjeev Gupta is talking about doing with his Whyalla Steelworks.

  6. Robert Westinghouse 3 years ago

    All great news. But the reality is the LNP will scuttle any attempt to take control of power from the few (foreign owned) Big Energy. I have no idea what goes on in the heads…We need to do it ourselves NOW before the NLP totally squeezes what remains of democracy.

  7. Aidan Stanger 3 years ago

    The study only appears to have considered topographic suitability, not local availability of water. The latter factor means most of those sites aren’t suitable for pumped hydro.

  8. Hettie 3 years ago

    Because water is such an issue in this dry land, shouldn’t we also be looking at advanced rail energy storage? Renewables used to drive flatbed rail cars loaded with a heavy ballast up a slope, then the run back down and the braking system generates power. Said to be 80% efficient.
    Google advanced rail energy storage.
    The ramps of old open cut coal mines might be suitable places to install such setups.

  9. Ian 3 years ago

    Now that we have found lots of nice sites for PHES, perhaps someone like these authors can move on to give us a cost, construction time and overall round trip efficiency analysis for a typical project.

  10. NigelReading|ASYNSIS 3 years ago


    Perfectly aligned with our current and many of our likely future population and agricultural-industrial centres. So let’s also link them up with a renewables-powered Inter-City, national #MetaLoop network (Green Bond-funded, thereby also dealing with strategic reserve excuses for retaining coal-power at enormous and short-term, commercially irrational cost while building a rapid-transit people-goods-energy-data flow network, that integrates the high voltage “poles and wires” with 12 wicked problems addressed and 3 revenue streams):

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