Université Libre de Bruxelles School of Engineering researchers are investigating whether energy storage via pumped hydro systems is possible on a very small scale, particularly in buildings. The team used the Goudemand apartment building in Arras in France as their case study for Pumped Hydro Energy Storage (PHES).
So far pumped-storage hydroelectricity systems are to be found throughout the world, but always on a large scale.
They took advantage of the Goudemand apartment building in Arras, France that has one surprising feature. There is an open-air water tank on the roof, connected to cisterns in the building’s basement.
Using the principle of pumped hydroelectricity, these water tanks constitute a form of energy storage, unprecedented in buildings but not necessarily advantageous vis-à-vis other storage technologies.
Pumping water up to a reservoir located on higher ground with a view to later releasing it to drive a turbine and produce electricity is the principle behind pumped-storage hydroelectricity production. It’s a form of energy storage to be found throughout the world.
In Belgium, for example, the Coo-Trois-Ponts power plant runs on the principle of pumped-storage hydroelectricity, and plays an important role in ensuring the nation’s energy balance and is able to reactivate the power grid in the case of a black-out. The principle of pumped-storage hydroelectricity is however little used on a small scale, as in this example, in buildings.
With this in mind, the two researchers set out to examine the feasibility and cost effectiveness of such systems. The smallest pumped-storage hydroelectricity system they found was in Greece, but it turned out to be too large to apply to a building. The two then got wind of the Goudemand apartment building in Arras, France. Managed by the regional social company “Pas-de-Calais Habitat,” the building had been recently refurbished, with solar panels and wind turbines installed on the roof. But it is its pumped-storage hydroelectricity system which makes the building unique.
After having found this rare jewel, the researchers set about studying this enormous battery: they conducted a full analysis of the building and then built a model allowing them to extrapolate the results for other similar buildings. Thanks to these simulations, the researchers realized that the economies of scale which make large pumped-storage hydroelectricity systems economically viable are not present in such small systems. Moreover, large amounts of water are necessary, requiring large and heavy facilities which are difficult to install in an urban context. Integrating such a system in a building’s water supply system is also a challenge for water quality.
As other storage options (for instance lithium-ion batteries) seem to be more cost-effective, pumped-storage hydroelectricity does not seem to be an interesting option for use in buildings. However, the researchers point to the case of buildings located for instance close to a canal, a factor which could reduce the cost of such a system. Furthermore, the full impact of such pumped-storage hydroelectricity systems (for instance on CO2 emissions) has not yet been calculated and compared to other technologies. Until then, installations such as the Goudemand residence help to pump up knowledge on the subject.
It may come as a surprise, but PHES is for now most of the world’s installed grid scale energy storage capacity. Its simple and mature technology, especially as it relies on already built reservoirs with hydro power systems installed and grid connections in place. Its works, works well and is cheap. All a facility needs is pumps and a means to keep the lower level water close by.
The ULB teams hints both in the press release and the study abstract that cutting tank requirements might get the small scale technology cost effective. A river or canal right up close would provide both the water and the low level storage. Coming up with the upper level storage and a pump and generation set also be needed.
The technology probably isn’t going to be a building option anytime soon. But the team asks a very intriguing question with hints on developing more hydro power. One doesn’t really need a dam, just a steady flow of water and enough nearby altitude for building a tank. One wonders where that idea gets economic viability. Somebody is going to be figuring that one out.