Demand for Norwegian pumped-storage hydropower is rising. Within the next two to three decades Norway could be providing Europe with parts of the balancing power it sorely needs. The technology is available, but more study, research and development are needed.
Text and photo: Atle Abelsen
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This was the consensus after stakeholders and researchers from the Centre for Environmental Design of Renewable Energy (CEDREN) met with representatives from public administration, interested industrial parties and European partners at a working seminar entitled “Large-scale balancing from Norwegian hydropower”, held in Western Norway on 11–13 September.
“It is difficult to point to any single research area or simple condition that needs to be prioritised to enable Norway to help Europe meet its growing demand for large amounts of balancing power,” says Atle Harby, Senior Scientist at SINTEF and the Centre Director of CEDREN.
“Research activities must have a broad focus, encompassing environmental impact, development of commercial funding instruments and market tools, social aspects, the political framework, and of course the necessary technical solutions.”
Dr Harby emphasises that the research must be carried out in parallel to addressing the challenges related to generating favourable framework conditions and establishing political legitimacy. Research and reports should identify and document environmental impacts and dispel myths.
Public administrators and decision-makers at both ends of the cables must do their part to agree at a fundamental level and enter into solid agreements that lay the foundation for commercial contracts. “The regulations of the countries involved must also be harmonised,” adds Dr Harby.
Some elements have already begun to fall into place. The countries involved are using the collaborative North Seas Countries Offshore Grid Initiative to deal with the political tasks, and both Germany and the UK have signed letters of intent with Norway concerning new cable connections.
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“System design for a North Sea grid should be highly prioritised,” states Jonathan Radcliffe of the UK firm Energy Research Partnership.
“There is great demand for balancing power in Europe, and particularly in Germany, as a way of reaching their ambitious climate targets,” says Bernd Calaminus of the German energy company EnBW.
“The technical hurdles for exchanging large amounts of balancing power with Europe are not insurmountable,” says project manager Arne Sandvold of Statkraft.
“We found there is broad support among involved parties for the concept of Norway as Europe’s green battery,” says Research Scientist Helene Egeland of SINTEF Energy Research.
Research Scientist Line Sundt-Hansen of NINA presented an overview of the impact of balance regulation power and hydropeaking on various species.
Julian Sauterleute, engineer at SINTEF Energy Research, studies potential changes in water levels of Norwegian hydropower reservoirs if used to balance intermittent energy sources.
During the seminar, representatives from Germany and the UK pointed to new cables as a first stop on the roadmap to a power-balanced Northern Europe. “But to the greatest possible extent, this should be a commercial project between private players,” asserts Jonathan Radcliffe, Head of the Analysis Team at the UK organisation Energy Research Partnership.
Dr Radcliffe points to the recent analysis “Understanding the balancing challenge” prepared by London Imperial College for the Department of Energy and Climate Change as part of the report “The Electricity System: assessment of future challenges”. “The report clarifies what is technically feasible and may give politicians a clearer idea of the systemic advantages to hooking up to the Norwegian system. The report should also motivate politicians and authorities to prioritise the necessary research and development.”
Bernd Calaminus, Head of Conventional Generation Technology and Hydro Power at the Holding of German energy company EnBW AG, agrees with Dr Radcliffe on the roadmap: “The first practical step should be a new connection between Norway and Germany. Right now we need even stronger involvement at the highest political level. No framework conditions for private investors exist. The visit of Philipp Rösler (Germany’s Federal Minister of Economics and Technology) to Norway this spring was an important step in the right direction,” believes Dr Calaminus.
Dr Calaminus points out that a valuable lesson should be taken from existing cables across the North Sea and Baltic Sea, which thus far have proven very profitable. “Especially when it will ensure the profitability of the projects,” he says.
Safe, optimised technology
Dr Radcliffe and Dr Calaminus both call for further development of the technology before the exchange of large amounts of electricity between Norway and the EU countries is feasible. “We should figure out which is the optimal solution,” says Dr Radcliffe, “a North Sea grid or direct links between the countries.”
Dr Calaminus agrees, adding that “the suppliers need to be in on this, because some of the technology will be cutting-edge, and this will help to avoid major delays or other setbacks that the fragile finances of the projects would hardly withstand.”
While the UK has signalled a long-term demand for balancing power in the range of 15–20 GW, Germany has indicated a substantially greater need. Dr Calaminus showed in his presentation at the seminar that Germany can increase its ratio of renewable energy, currently at 17 per cent, to 40 per cent by 2025, without increasing its need for balancing power. Further raising the proportion to 80 per cent by 2050, which appears to be the government’s target, would require 20 GW of long-term balancing power (on seasonal, weekly and daily timeframes). Should Germany attempt to get its power completely from carbon-free sources – adding only solar power, wind power and other unpredictable sources of energy – its demand would triple to 60 GW.
“At this point,” continues Dr Calaminus, “this last scenario does not look very realistic. Even 20 GW is quite a challenge. If obtaining hydropower-based balancing power from Norway proves difficult, then we must ramp up the development of alternative sources. Currently this would likely come partly from hydropower as well as compressed air energy stored in salt caverns, but most importantly the storage of hydrogen or synthesis gas. These are fully realisable, but for the time being nowhere near Norwegian hydropower in terms of price and quality.”
Not limited by technology
Arne Sandvold, a project manager at Statkraft, states that a balancing power regime of up to 20–25 GW is obtainable from a Norwegian technical standpoint.
“This capacity is within reach if we expand the existing Norwegian hydropower system. It would require the installation of new pumped-storage turbines and auxiliary tunnels between existing hydropower reservoirs. But this is primarily a financial issue; the technology is tried and tested, although it can still be improved upon.”
Mr Sandvold stresses, however, that Norway is only capable of supplying part of Europe’s balancing power needs, and the main challenge will be to lay enough cable connections to the countries to be balanced. “Cable projects from Norway already approved leading up to 2020 will mainly utilise the flexibility of today’s Norwegian hydropower system. If we are to balance more than that, there must be both political and commercial willingness on both sides to lay more cables.”
A significant part of the workshop was devoted to addressing the environmental challenges involved and on CEDREN’s work to identify them. SINTEF’s Julian Sauterleute presented simulations of the anticipated changes in water levels of three hydropower production systems relevant for potential expansion (Rjukan, Holen and Tonstad) if they are utilised to balance the power generation of offshore wind farms. These are preliminary studies; there is a need for a more thorough picture of the demand for balancing power, the potential at the technical facilities and the impacts on the reservoirs. Line Sundt-Hansen of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) presented an overview of the impact of pumped storage hydropower on the ecosystem of reservoirs. Little is known about the environmental impact in reservoirs, and there is a need for more research on the effect of pumped storage hydropower on food webs and transfer of invasive species in such systems.
Political agreement and social acceptance are also important topics in need of further research before a balancing power market can be implemented in Northern Europe. In CEDREN’s preliminary study, Helene Egeland of SINTEF Energy Research found there is broad support among involved parties for the concept of Norway as “Europe’s green battery”. But scepticism runs deep regarding the political and economic realities of the projects.
“Nevertheless, the largest obstacles to Norwegian involvement in a regime to supply balancing power to Europe relate to environmental issues and disturbance to the natural surroundings. In addition, other obligations also factor in, such as the EU Water Framework Directive and national commitments related to biodiversity,” adds Dr Egeland.
She stresses the importance of involving all parties at the earliest possible stage in order to work out ownership of the various processes. Local communities must feel they too have something to gain if the Norwegian hydropower system is to provide balancing services.