Micro-Pumped Hydro From Farm Dams: A New Energy Storage Solution for Australia

energy storage_farm_dam

A groundbreaking study led by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney suggests that Australia’s vast agricultural water reservoirs, commonly used for farm irrigation, could serve as a pioneering solution for energy storage in the age of variable renewables. The research, published in Applied Energy, explores the idea of creating tens of thousands of small-scale pumped hydro energy storage systems by connecting these reservoirs, potentially revolutionising the energy landscape in rural areas. This innovative approach aims to support the growth of reliable, low-carbon power systems, particularly in regions where energy supply can be unpredictable.

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The need for renewable energy storage

The global shift towards renewable energy sources such as wind energy and solar photovoltaics (PV) has created a pressing need for effective energy storage solutions. Unlike traditional fossil fuels, these renewable sources are intermittent, making storing surplus energy generated during peak production periods essential. Energy storage ensures a stable and reliable power supply, bridging the gap when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. This stored energy can be released as needed, balancing energy supply and demand and reducing the risk of shortages and overloads.

Micro-pumped hydro energy storage

One innovative solution the UNSW-led research team proposed is the concept of micro-pumped hydro energy storage systems. These systems store excess solar energy from high-production periods by pumping water from low-lying to high-lying reservoirs. When additional power is required, the water is released back to the lower reservoir, passing through a turbine-connected generator to produce electricity. While this concept isn’t new, the study focuses on leveraging existing farm dams for this purpose, making it more cost-effective.


Image: UNSW-By pumping water to a high-lying reservoir and releasing it back into a low-lying reservoir when more power is required, micro-pumped hydro energy storage devices store extra solar energy from high-production periods.

Unlocking the potential of farm dams

To identify suitable sites for these micro-pumped hydro energy storage systems, the research team utilised satellite imagery to pinpoint agricultural reservoir pairings across Australia. Using graph theory algorithms, they filtered out commercially promising sites based on minimum capacity and slope. The result was identifying over 30,000 promising sites across the country, each capable of providing up to 2 kW of power and 30 kWh of usable energy. This energy could back up South Australia’s home for up to 40 hours.

Cost-effectiveness and sustainability

Comparing micro-pumped hydro energy storage to conventional lithium-ion batteries used in solar-powered irrigation systems, the study found that despite lower discharge efficiency, pumped hydro storage was 30 per cent cheaper for a large single-cycle load due to its high storage capacity. Moreover, the longevity and reduced environmental impact of utilising existing farm dams as reservoirs further highlight the potential benefits of this approach.

Enhancing reliability in rural areas

In addition to its cost-effectiveness and environmental advantages, using farm dams for micro-pumped hydro energy storage could significantly improve energy reliability in rural areas. Battery backup systems typically offer less than half a day of power, while generators depend on fuel supply and produce emissions. In contrast, a pumped hydro system could provide a reliable energy source for an entire day, crucial in bushfires or other emergencies.

Benefits of micro-pumped hydro energy storage systems

  • Cost-effective
  • Reliable
  • High storage capacity
  • Potential durability for decades
  • Less environmental impact than other energy storage solutions
  • It can help rural areas that are susceptible to power outages

Limitations of the study: Future prospects

While the study is a significant step towards unlocking the potential of farm dams for renewable energy storage, some limitations still need further analysis. These include:

  • Fluctuations in water availability
  • Pump scheduling
  • Discharge efficiency

Nevertheless, the research team is enthusiastic about the prospects of this emerging technology and envisions setting up pilot sites to validate its real-world performance. With thousands of potential sites identified, Australia’s farm dams may hold the key to a more sustainable and reliable energy future.

Future work

The research team says their findings encourage further development of micro-pumped hydro energy storage technology. They believe there is plenty of scope for future technological improvements that will make these systems increasingly cheaper over time.

The next step is to set up a pilot site to test the performance of a system in action and model it in detail to get real-world validation.


Source: UNSW Sydney Newsroom

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