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Hydropower: the only renewable solution for energy storage – interview with GE’s Hydro CEO Pascal Radue

Renewable energy demand in 2020 will increase by about 1 per cent compared to last year levels. So estimates the International Energy Agency, according to which renewable electricity generation will almost reach 30 per cent of electricity supply globally. 

Solar and wind contributed almost to the entire added renewable capacity in 2019, but it is hydropower the world’s largest renewable energy resource accounting for roughly 16 per cent of global power generation capacity.

CEENERGYNEWS spoke with Pascal Radue, President and CEO of GE’s Hydro Solutions for GE Renewable Energy about the role that hydropower will play in terms of energy supplier and storage, with a special focus on Turkey as one of Europe’s leading markets for future hydropower development.

“I read some time ago that hydropower is often seen as the workhorse of the energy transition,” he says. “This term may sound slightly disrespectful, but it is more than accurate.”

If we want to reach our global decarbonisation goals, we will have to almost double the installed capacities for hydropower by 2050. Given the need for grid flexibility to accommodate more renewable energy and the diversification of energy players, hydropower is projected to remain the largest renewable electricity source through 2023.

“Just take a look at hydro storage that plays an increasingly important role in the industry thanks to the growing penetration of wind and solar,” Mr Radue continues. “These two energy sources are by nature more intermittent. So, utilities need a source of clean energy that is available rapidly and hydro storage meets perfectly this need.” 

To him, however, there is another very important advantage of using hydropower: not only does it provide a substantial portion of energy to support a sustainable lifestyle for everyone, but it also mitigates water challenges, especially under the current circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, the COVID-19 made two things clear: first of all, that we need energy supplies now more than ever; second, the importance of storage. According to the GE report Implementing sustainable business models for hydro storage, more than 10 per cent of the hydro installed base provides hydro storage, making it possible to store great quantities of immediately available potential electricity and to provide greater flexibility and stability to the energy network. 

Photo: courtesy of GE Renewable Energy

“Hydropower is ultimately the only renewable large-scale solution for energy storage,” confirms Mr Radue. 

However, he recognises that what is lacking are long term policies, regulatory simplification and increased visibility that can help utilities and investors better understand the benefits and the value that hydro storage provides. 

“It is as simple as that: political decision-makers have to shape the regulatory framework accordingly,” he urges. “What we need is an environment that mitigates investment risks. What we need is a legal and business environment ensuring long-term transparency and visibility to limit borrowing costs and to foster investment in new projects.”

We cannot afford to wait – addressing climate change means to put water at the heart of climate policymakers action plans: right now.

But what are the advantages of hydro storage, compared to other renewable storages like hydrogen or batteries?

“Scale is the attribute that differentiates hydro storage from the other solutions,” Mr Radue replies. “For example, in part because of scale, batteries address very different needs than does hydro storage. While batteries can fulfil many smaller-scale needs — in homes, commercial properties and even cars, for instance—they are not designed for storing the vast amounts of energy needed for communities and industries to ride through long-term lulls in renewable generation.” 

Mr Radue strongly believes in hydro storage as the technology that ensures the path to a decarbonised energy landscape. He recalls that already today, 95 per cent of all stored energy is provided by water storage. Its storage capacity is up to 100 times higher than that of any available battery solution. 

Combined with pumped storage technology hydropower is the most cost-competitive, large scale—both in the amount of energy stored and in time of storage—option as it offers predictable, efficient and sustainable energy storage solutions.

“Pumped hydro storage plants have a lifetime of more than 40 years for the electromechanical equipment and 100 years for the dam,” he adds.

GE’s Hydro Solutions fits perfectly in this environment because of its experience and scale. The company has been in the hydropower industry for more than 100 years, it has the largest installed base of hydro storage units and has the unique R&D means and know-how to pursue hydro’s development. All of this will be essential in the construction of a 1000 megawatts (MW) pumped-storage hydropower plant in Turkey’s Isparta province, a contribution to Turkey’s first energy storage plant that Mr Radue considers to be a real honour for the company. 

“Like many other countries, Turkey has ambitious targets in renewables,” he says. “With 7,7 gigawatts (GW) of installed wind and a 6,1 GW of installed solar energy within the 91,5 GW total installed capacity, Turkey has reached a significant amount of variable renewable sources in its energy diversity. And this should be supported with a large storage capacity to balance fluctuations both in price and grid network load, as has been done in many other countries since almost 1950.”

And because of the increase in wind and solar resources, hydro storage will be needed more than ever. 

“It is also worth to mention that the Egirdir hydro storage plant will as well prevent current disruptions and droughts of the lake by supporting the new planned dripping and sprinkler system irrigation project in the area,” Mr Radue explains. “And thanks to its closed-circuit design, the system has no direct impact – such as a loss of water in its reservoirs. Even the lake and natural life are abundant oxygen supplements.” 

The international hydropower association defined Turkey as one of Europe’s leading markets for future hydropower development. According to Mr Radue says although the level of installed HPP capacity is quite important, there’s still an economical potential of up to 50 GW. Today Turkey is only using 60 per cent of its economical hydroelectrical potential.

In line with the International Hydropower Association, we do believe that Turkey is one of the leading markets for future hydropower development but not only due to the potential pipeline of MW’s, but also due to its world-class equipment suppliers, the high ratio of a young and educated population, the 6 per cent average growth rate, and the same rate of growth in annual demand for energy over the past 15 years.

“Focusing more and more in localisation by domestic and renewable resources, supply security and a predictable market for all stakeholders, Turkey will continue to be the leading actor in its region for future investments,” he agrees. “However, the electricity consumption per capita is still at 40 per cent of an average IEA member country. Continuing the successful focus on electrification, digitalisation, decentralisation and an increased rate of renewable energy usage supported by a well-balanced grid will enable them to enjoy the electrification benefits they seek. We are proud to be a supporting local partner in Turkey’s ambitious goals.”

Digital solutions can surely help the transition of the current hydropower business model anywhere. Mr Radue explains that in today’s challenging energy market hydropower operators face multiple challenges such as increasing price pressure with the rise of intermittent renewable energy, tighter regulations, ageing assets, experienced workforce turnover, new operating patterns or staff retention in remote locations. 

“I am fully convinced that digital technologies can help turn these challenges into real opportunities,” he says.

To me, the future in hydro is digital – and this future features sensors, data acquisition, data collection and data management systems, predictive analytics, software solutions with advanced user experience, as well as consultancy and advisory services.

And digital is among the three words used by Mr Radue to describe the future of the company: flexibility, digital and storage, the three mega-trends in the sector. 

“The hydropower business model is changing,” he concludes. “Customers no longer operate their hydro plants as they used to. They require more flexibility than ever before. Delivering a low-carbon, secure and resilient power system will depend on new flexible hydropower technologies such as smart controls, new variable- and fixed-speed turbines as well as battery-turbine hybrids. Advanced Hydro assets combined with software, data analytics and sensors will be the way forward to generate new sources of revenues and lower production costs. And finally, we will focus on providing the storage technologies that are needed to store great quantities of immediately available potential electricity and provide greater flexibility and stability to the energy network.”

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