Let’s turn Latrobe Valley coal pits into hydro storage for renewables

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It’s time for the Latrobe Valley brown coal mines to be taught new tricks, such as how to store renewable energy with pumped hydro.

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latrobe hydro
A clean and green future for coal pits – storage for wind and solar farms and a 100% renewable energy future.

Recently the electric car maker Tesla rocked the electricity world by launching with their low-cost Powerwall battery into the electricity distribution grid, business, and home electricity market sectors.

The announced price tag of $US 3,000 for Tesla’s seven kilowatt-hour system (or ~ $US 400 / kilowatt-hour, which does not include installation and inverter costs) illustrates how electrical battery costs continue to fall. No doubt storing electricity right in your garage will be useful and may become quite popular.

But as we and others have written, having large-scale pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) on the electricity grid can also be a useful thing especially as the penetration of renewable energy grows.

Our research described PHES costs in the range of $A 100 to 200 per kilowatt-hour (installed), far cheaper than the Tesla announcement. It is not too late for those in the business of large-scale electricity supply to get busy devising PHES schemes that slow their customers’ rush down to the Tesla Powerwall store.

And some developers are doing just that. With PHES, two things on which you must spend money are two holes in the ground – the upper and lower ponds. Although these holes needn’t be large – because ponds as small as five hectares can store a meaningful amount of energy – digging holes comes at a cost.

So it makes sense that today’s Australian PHES developers look around for where there might be at least one existing body of water or hole in the ground. Some of our previous research describes how even the ocean can be used as the lower pond. Other options include existing water storage reservoirs and disused mines.

Overseas, underground mines are being considered for PHES. However, surface or open-cut mines are also suitable. In Australia , Leyshon Resources and Genex Power are targeting two different Queensland mine sites where existing open-cut mines or ponds might be converted to PHES service. These mines are located toward the fringe of the electricity grid and planned capacities range from 20 to 330 megawatts.

Site of potential Genex Power Kidston Pumped Hydro Energy Storage Project

Rather than at the fringe of the grid, one option for Victoria would be sited right in the heart of that state’s traditional electricity generation region. Latrobe Valley open-cut brown coal pits could be converted to PHES service as those pits reach their use-by dates.

Many Australians know that Lake Eyre in central Australia, at 12 metres below sea level, is Australia’s lowest naturally-occurring location. However some of the Victorian brown coal mines have been dug as deep as 60 meters below sea level to form the deepest open-air point in Victoria and possibly on the entire continent.

These below-sea-level mine pits would serve as the lower ponds for a PHES scheme. Existing cooling water pondages or new reservoirs would be used as upper ponds. Unlike the Queensland projects mentioned above, a Latrobe Valley PHES facility would have the competitive advantage of being sited nearly beneath the major electricity transmission lines that supply the Melbourne market.

The areal extent of the Latrobe Valley pits (hundreds of hectares) plus the 130 meter elevation difference between the upper and lower ponds allow a world-class PHES facility greater than 1,000 megawatts to be contemplated. Such a PHES facility would, in future, help balance the continuing expansion of variable renewable electricity generation (i.e. wind and solar).

Presently, as shown in the chart below, wholesale electricity price volatility has slumped, taking with it any immediate incentives to build large-scale energy storage. This is because of declining demand for grid-supplied electricity, the roll-out of rooftop solar PV, excess generation capacity, cooler summers, recent rainfall filling conventional hydro dams, and other factors.

MEI hydro
Electricity price volatility in the National Electricity Market (log10 of standard deviation of wholesale prices, by Melbourne Energy Institute)


However electricity wholesale market price volatility and incentives for PHES will return as ageing coal plants in the Latrobe Valley and elsewhere are retired, renewable electricity generation (wind and solar) expand, and when hot and dry weather returns.

Retiring Latrobe Valley brown coal plants and rehabilitating their associated coal pits for a future career in renewable energy storage could be key stepping stones on the path to 100% renewable energy.

Tim Forcey is Energy Advisor, University of Melbourne Energy Institute, and Roger Dargaville is Deputy Director, University of Melbourne Energy Institute


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  1. suthnsun 4 years ago

    Gravity Power modules would be another easy install in our multitude of abandoned ‘ holes’

  2. Ken Dyer 4 years ago

    May it happen sooner rather than later

  3. Alastair Leith 4 years ago

    This has been on my mind. 🙂 Would be interesting to see some data about what capacity of renewable energy penetration into Victorian grid would make the conversion of Hazelwood to PHES a valuable grid service and therefore when we could look at doing this. Given Roger Dargaville has done some optimised modelling scenarios for Renewable Energy maybe a follow up article is in order if this provokes some interest.

    • Matt 3 years ago

      The Hazlewood pondage has a volume of 30,000 cubic metres, a rough calculation assuming 100m head to the coal pits and 70% round trip efficiency gives close to 6GWh of storage!

      • Matt 3 years ago

        Actually it’s volume is 30 million cubic metres, my mistake

  4. Andreas Bimba 3 years ago

    Looks plausible to me and not difficult or expensive to do.

    • mhodza 3 years ago

      I wonder what the efficiency of such a large setup is?

      • Andreas Bimba 3 years ago

        The best pumps and turbines have efficiencies of about 90% add to that piping and electrical losses I would guess 60 to 70% efficiency. The bigger the height difference the better and using existing dams high up in mountain ranges such as Eucumbene Dam in the Snowy Mountains may be preferable.

  5. Peter Doyle 3 years ago

    Please explain how the water gets from the low ponds to the higher ponds …

    • Michael Pulsford 3 years ago

      That’s the ‘pump’ bit of pumped hydro storage. Pump water uphill when electricity is in surplus, run it downhill through a turbine when you need the stored energy.

  6. mhodza 3 years ago

    Thinking is a small scale version could be used at home with two medium sized rainwater tanks mounted on top of one another. instead of large battery banks. What would the efficiency of this be? Would it be better than say lead acid flooded cells?

  7. lin 3 years ago

    This looks like a fantastic idea. Just imagine Hazelwood going from environmental disaster to major clean energy storage facility. Just imagine the “green” cred this would give the gentailers. Cleaner than batteries, and it would be much harder for the mine to catch fire if it was under water too.

  8. Tim Forcey 3 years ago

    More news on this topic here now: https://reneweconomy.com.au/2015/genex-takes-330mw-pumped-hydro-plan-to-market-70060 re mines in QLD being converted to pumped hydro.

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