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Gravity Power Module Revolutionizes Pumped Hydro Energy Storage

Thomas Schueneman | Friday March 11th, 2011 | 17 Comments

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A new concept for pumped hydroEnergy storage is arguably the Achilles heal of renewable energy.

Matching the diurnal nature of the wind and the sun with the on-demand, baseload nature of human energy consumption requires energy storage that is scalable to Gigawatts, reliable, efficient, economically viable, and environmentally benign.

The only method of energy storage with any significant deployment is pumped hydro, with more than 120,000 megawatts installed globally. But the last large scale pumped hydro project went online more than thirty years ago, and almost all of that capacity is used as “peaking” power for baseload sources like coal, oil, and nuclear power.

Other technologies, such as batteriesthermal energy, or compressed air storage are considered candidates for renewable energy storage. But these solutions can be costly, difficult to scale to grid-sized operations, and are fraught with environmental concerns. And so it is with conventional pumped hydro.

Typically, a large scale pumped hydro project requires an investment of up to $3 billion dollars before investors see a return, taking up to fifteen years, with an equally large environmental footprint requiring two large bodies of water at differing elevations.

There are some visionary plans for the pumped hydro concept, such as the Green Power Island from Danish architectural firm Gottlieb Paludan. But such grand schemes remain purely conceptual and thus far fail to address the core issue: pumped-hydro remains environmentally and economically costly.

Gravity Power LLC, a startup based in Santa Barbara, California, has a plan to turn pumped hydro on its head – literally.

Pumped hydro and the genius of simplicity

The Gravity Power Module in actionIn all its elements, Gravity Power Module (GPM) is simple. It’s the unique application of known mechanical engineering principals that is the innovative key to GPM.

At the heart of the system is a reversible pump-turbine and motor-generator sitting atop an underground “water circuit” consisting of two sealed water-filled vertical shafts – a main bore called the “storage pipe” and a secondary “return pipe” bore. Within the main bore rests a large piston called the “weight stack.” The weight stack is the means of storing energy. Water flows through the two sealed bores at the top and bottom, circulating within the system around the weight stack.

Drawing on grid power the reversible drive turbine pumps the water down through the return pipe and up the main bore below the stack, lifting the stack to store energy

To release stored energy when power demand exceeds supply, the weight stack descends, forcing the water up through the return pipe, driving the pump-turbine, and generating electricity in the process. The speed the stack drops determines the power of the GPM; the length of the storage pipe and the mass of the stack determines the amount of energy stored in a GPM.

A “peaking” capacity GPM facility will have a drive shaft 10 meters (33 feet) in diameter and 1000-2000 meters deep (about 3200 to over 6500 feet deep). Easily clustered together, eight such shafts could provide up to 150 megawatts each for four hours. Up to sixteen GPMs clustered together could supply a total of 2400MW on 2.5 acres of land – essentially 1 gigawatt per acre.

Modular, scalable, and efficient

The pump-turbine can ramp from zero to full power in about 20 seconds. With a modest drop rate of 0.2 to 0.4 meters per second, piston friction is minimal. Efficiencies of 75 to 80 percent can be achieved, says Jim Fiske, Founder and CTO, over a broad power range, from smaller ancillary service applications to full-scale peaking plants. GPMs modularity makes it highly scalable and individual units can be immediately brought online once each GPM is constructed.

Using readily available, low cost materials (cement, iron ore, steel) makes for rapid construction, with standardized components manufactured offsite and requiring no additional factory capacity. The key determinants of cost are local labor and the ability to sink deep shafts quickly and efficiently. Shaft construction is a main focus of current project R&D and a key partner in the development of the GPM is the Robbins Company, pioneers in automated, high-speed tunnel boring technology.

Siting of GPM is highly flexible. With a small and relatively unobtrusive footprint, a multi-shaft installation can be built even in dense urban areas, or near sources of renewable energy, or wherever economics and engineering dictates is best.

Fighting institutional inertia and the myth of “shovel ready”

Interest in GPM is steadily growing, especially offshore in places like China, India, South Africa and the Middle East. But Jim Fiske admits to a certain amount of “indifference” from “institutional inertia” here in the United States. Fiske sees one reason is the clamor for “shovel ready” projects to fund – a misleading concept when funding for innovation and development of new ideas is what is needed before anyone can get out their shovel and move forward building a clean energy economy. “We just have to prove things to people,” says Fiske.

Proving the concept

And Gravity Power is working hard for the opportunity to prove itself. Gravity Power received its first round of funding in early 2009 from The Quercus Trust and 21Ventures, LLC, and is currently raising a Series B round of financing.  A proof-of-concept 50kW test unit will be built near company headquarters in Santa Barbara. Fiske is looking for opportunities to build a commercial grid scale facility by 2013. There are tentative plans for a project in Texas, where the limestone geology is ideal and wind generation is abundant. But if not Texas, Fiske is confident a scaled-up version of GPM will be built by 2013, though it may be built in China, India, South Africa or the Middle East first, he says, where interest in the GPM is keen and inertia is less.

Get big

It is with economies of scale that GPM can address the needs of energy storage in the coming decades. When I spoke with Fiske about GPM, I asked about his vision for Gravity Power, LLC. “It needs to be big,” he told me. “We want to be the next Calpine.”

“I’ve always found it puzzling,” says Fiske. “When I hear people say energy storage isn’t cost effective.” He aims to prove those people wrong with the Gravity Power Module. And the new big news for Gravity Power is that it has hired Thomas R. Mason, who was Executive Vice President of Calpine and who oversaw the engineering, construction, operation and maintenance of over 27 GW of power generation. ”My hope and expectation is that this technology will globally change the way that utilities plan and operate their systems,” said Mason.

Want to know more? Get the answers from the founders

I’ve barely scratched the surface with GPM.  To find out more about Gravity Power’s technology, business model, pump-turbine design, FERC regulatory requirements (Fiske says GPM doesn’t fall under FERC regulations), and ongoing R&D, leave your comments here. Jim Fiske, CTO, and Chris Grieco, EVP, are available to answer your questions.

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Tom Schueneman has been a contributor to Triple Pundit since October of 2007. He is the founder of GloblaWarmingisReal.com, and a citizen-advocate of the clean energy economy. Tom also provides information for homeowners interested in building their own solar panels.


▼▼▼      17 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com Nick Palmer

    Won’t the excavation of these vertical tunnels generate an awful lot of waste material?

    • Dave Shires

      I’m not sure that’s the kind of waste we really need to be worried about. A pile of rocks, basically. Can certainly be used for paving, breakwaters, gravel, all kinds of applications. Already being done anyway, might as well make something useful out of the digging process that would otherwise be done just for the material!

  • Ben

    Cost, cost, cost! What does it cost?

    Most of the cost will be drilling the holes (which will vary). What is a high & low estimate for the 150MW 4 hour device described above?

    • http://gravitypower.net Jim Fiske

      Target cost in the U.S. is $200/kWh. Early costs will be over $300. Costs will tend to be lower in countries where the cost of labor is low.

  • Roger Bowman

    Hmmm…with those depths, would there be any thermal energy benefits? Sort of a thermally poor geothermal well? If they are already making the investment for the rest of the system can adding a way to extract thermal energy add much cost?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandeep-Rao/1154110108 Sandeep Rao

    50kW prototype. Curious why 50kW. Will doing it at 5kW to 10kW range be very expensive (cost per kW)? How much storage at both levels will be needed for a height of 3 meters for pumped hydro for 5-10 kW ?

    • http://gravitypower.net Jim Fiske

      50kW turned out to be the appropriate size pump-turbine for testing in a hydro-turbine test lab. This is a small scale version of a production pump-turbine that will be many times larger. The scale GPM is also a version of a production version that is many times larger.

  • Philip Kahn

    Though it looks quite simple and promising, the example of the Gravity Power Module is not a proven technology and it has several challenges. Building a system of 6000 foot shafts that must maintain seals for years of operation seems quite challenging. By my rough calculation, such a system would have a piston that would weigh nearly 40 million kilograms or 40,000 tons (in order to generate 150 megawatts traveling at .4 meters per second). With a 10 meter diameter, such a piston if it were made of concrete would be 200 meters high. It would generate a pressure of 170 lbs per square inch (12 atmospheres of pressure), and would have to be sealed against leaks to keep the piston elevated. The tolerances of the shaft would be quite challenging to maintain, unless very sophisticated seals are used. It seems unlikely that such a system could work in seismically active areas such as California.

    • http://gravitypower.net Jim Fiske

      True, the GPM is not yet proven, but we have found no problems that do not have straightforward solutions. The piston is actually composed of “heavy” concrete, i.e. cement and iron ore, with twice the density of normal concrete, and is designed to easily be removed (in pieces) from the shaft for maintenance. The working pressure is somewhat higher than you suggest — about 450 psi. This pressure is distributed over a series of flexible seals that conform to variations in the shaft wall, making tolerances more achievable. The seals are replaceable. We will avoid seismically active areas initially — there are plenty of other markets — and will look closer at that issue later. Seismic disturbances will have far less risk for GPMs than for pumped hydro, CAES, nuclear power plants, gas power plants, or even large battery installations. There is no plausible scenario where seismic damage to a GPM would endanger human lives.

      • Anonymous

        Jim, I hadn’t yet heard that a gravity-power module like the
        GPM was in the works, but one month ago I was mulling this idea around and
        thought up a similar energy storage method, without the deep holes. Dunno if
        it’s feasible, but give this some thought:

        Imagine a long, large ramp, proceeding from the ocean shore up the side of a
        hill. Position an old freighter (with its holds filled with concrete?) at the
        bottom of the ramp, and work out a hydraulic or mechanical means for excess
        electrical power to move the ship up the ramp. It follows that whenever the
        grid needs power from this setup — similar to your gravity-power system –
        then the weight of the ship can be used to reverse-feed the power back into the
        grid.

        It wouldn’t take rocket science to engineer and build, and the entire system is
        right there above ground, fully accessible for year-round maintenance.

        Important variables would be the length and gradient angle of the ramp, the
        weight of the ship, the means of economically converting energy both ways, and
        of course the application of low-friction rollers and bearings as well as
        redundant safety features.

        Inland installations away from water could use a giant sled on wheels, filled
        with concrete. A mountain or large hill would be needed, for the ramp.

        Your borehole concept would always work the best in flat country where there
        are no hills. How the ramp-method would compare in efficiency with your
        borehole-method, would be an interesting study.

  • David Faylor

    What kind of turbine run in reverse is going to lift the concrete and the weight of the water /
    As the chamber is filled the pressure is increased, unless filling from the top. Then a cable lift motor would be needed to lift the piston weight.

  • JHM

    How about a hydroelectric plant reversing turbines to pump water back up into the reservoir? Is this done?

  • JHM

    For wind power, a pully and weight system can drive mechanical power simultaneously to a generator and a suspended weight. When the wind puts more power in (high wind) than the generator is putting out (low demand), the weight will go up the pole of the windmill. When more power out is needed (low demand) than power in (low wind), then the weight descends and drives the generator. If you lift a 4000 kg mass up 10 m, you store up 10.8 kWh. This would smooth out gusts of wind as well as store energy for peak demand. Wind generators already have their own towers, so this system would leverage that capital.

  • Shabbir

    Planet of Earth Energy Crisis.

    Dear Sir,

    The Subject matter is all over the World facing Energy problem, So I am trying to
    Explain an idea for Old & New Dams / Reservoirs Hydro electric projects Civil Design Geometry Can be modifying in Architectural Transition to increase our energy potential. Because we are Losing heavy quantum of already storage water in our Big Dams and its relevant projects to generate Hydro Electric old technology, Now it must be need to convert into new theory of Scientific Technology as per utilizing in the way of experiment with foreign expertise at any Hydro electric base Model of concern Department or forum to finalize the following unique and entire world Global developing idea for its further implementations in the current ongoing and next coming future Hydro projects as soon as possible.

    Thanks.

    with best regards.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MRG2U Mark Gruici

    Where does the external energy come from.?

  • himanshu kushwaha

    O We can create electricity from gravity. O We can use gravity instead of fuel. Hey, we can create a system by which electricity can weave O. One idea to contact me on my mind Oh I gauravkichha @ gmail. Com

  • rahul n

    interesting.. but my Q how will you will bring the pistol up?