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Drax makes pumped hydro expansion contingent on long duration energy storage framework

Cruachan currently has a capacity of 600MW, and sits in the Ben Cruachan in Argyll. Image: Drax.

Cruachan currently has a capacity of 600MW, and sits in the Ben Cruachan in Argyll. Image: Drax.

Drax has submitted an application for planning consent to expand its pumped hydro Cruachan Power Station in Scotland to 1GW, but stressed the need for proper frameworks to support long duration energy storage in the UK.

While plans to add a further 400MW of energy storage capacity have been submitted, Drax has said a final investment decision on the expansion remains dependent on the government implementing mechanisms to support and reward long duration energy storage.

The development would see a new cavern and tunnels hollowed out in Ben Cruachan – Argyll’s highest mountain – by excavating two million tonnes of rock. Construction of the new pumped hydro plant would create around 900 jobs across the supply chain over a six year period, with the potential for the plant to be operation by 2030.

As with the existing 600MW power plant, reversible turbines will be used to pump water from Loch Awe to the upper reservoir on the mountainside using excess renewable generation, helping to avoid curtailment. An estimated 24GW of long duration storage is needed by 2035 to ensure the UK can transition to a net zero electricity system, according to recent research from Aurora.

“Drax’s plan to expand Cruachan will strengthen the UK’s energy security by enabling more homegrown renewable electricity to come online to power homes and businesses across the country, helping to end our reliance on imports and cut costs,” Ian Kinnaird, Drax’s Scottish assets director said.

“Only by investing in long-duration storage technologies can the UK reach its full renewable potential, and Drax is ready to move mountains to do just that.”

Pumped hydro uses excess renewable energy to move water up to a reservoir, which can then be released to generate electricity when needed. Image: Drax.
Pumped hydro uses excess renewable energy to move water up to a reservoir, which can then be released to generate electricity when needed. Image: Drax.

Following the submission of the planning application under Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989, the Scottish Government has a year to process it.

In addition to securing this, Drax has highlighted that there is a lack of an existing government framework to support long-duration electricity storage and flexibility technologies. This means private investment cannot be secured for new pumped storage hydro projects, no new plants having been built since Dinorwig in North Wales in 1984.

A final investment decision on the expansion of Cruachan remains dependent on the creation of such a framework.

The role of long-duration energy storage technologies such as pumped-hydro has been drawing increasing focus recently, with the UK government’s 2021 Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan stating they will be “essential for achieving net zero”.

Since then, there has been government support both in the form of a £7 million funding programme for early stage technologies, and a call for evidence on how to de-risk investment put out in 2021.

In March, energy storage representatives and energy minister Greg Hands met to discuss how to unlock investment in energy storage technologies, including a key focus on the potential of a cap and floor mechanism.

Such a mechanism has been suggested as the best route to enable the rollout of long-duration technologies in recent research from both Aurora and KPMG.

“Pumped storage hydro is a critical technology needed to meet net zero,” added Claire Mack, Scottish Renewables chief executive.

“Over the last decade we have managed to develop the technologies to decarbonise the power system such as wind and solar, but what we really need now is greater flexibility to fully optimise those technologies. That’s why the success of long-duration storage projects such as Cruachan 2 is absolutely vital to Scotland and the whole of the UK.”

Along with the expansion of Cruachan, a number of other companies are eying pumped hydro devvelopments including the ILI Group, which has three pumped hydro projects in development including one on Loch Ness. Additionally, RheEnergise won a chunk of government funding to develop its high-density pumped hydro solution, which is designed to open up additional geographies.

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