Batteries, pumped hydro or more transmission lines?

With particular reference to South Australia

At the time of writing more than a half of the electricity in my state, South Australia, was being generated by wind and solar resources and there remains huge undeveloped potential for more. It is not unusual for so much renewable energy to be generated that it cannot be consumed in the state, the excess is usually exported to the eastern states. Sometimes there is so much renewable energy being generated that it is too much for combined consumption and the present limits on export.

There are many times when wind and solar power are insufficient for local demand, this is made up by expensive gas generation within the state and importing power from the largely coal-fuelled generators in the eastern states.

There is no hydro power at all in the state (the state has no well watered mountains). We do have what was at the time of building, the biggest battery in the world (100 MW/129 MWh) at Hornsdale and two smaller, but also utility scale batteries elsewhere in the state. The options for the future seem to be increased interstate power transmission or increased storage within the state, most likely in either batteries or pumped hydro installations.

South Australia has huge untapped renewable energy resources remaining, but if the state is to develop these, ways will have to be found to handle the variable nature of renewable energy generation. The main options that are viable at the present seem to be:

  • Increased interstate power transmission capacity;
  • Large-scale storage of electricity in batteries;
  • Large-scale storage of electricity in pumped hydro facilities;
  • Development of demand response flexibility.
Other options will probably gradually become available in the medium term including using excess electricity to produce hydrogen and ammonia.

This page was started 2020/05/01, last edited 2020/09/28
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

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Part of Snowtown Wind Farm
Snowtown turbines
Photographed by my drone, June 2020

Import and export of power in South Australia in one day
Battery use
The record of the importing and exporting of power in South Australia over one 24 hour period, 2020/05/01
Click on the image to see in high definition. Source Open NEM
The graph on the right shows that my state, South Australia, relies heavily on exporting power to the eastern states (when wind and solar power is cheap and plentiful within the state) and importing power from the eastern states (when expensive gas power is being used within SA because insufficient wind and solar power is being generated).

This record of the importing and exporting power from South Australia to the remainder of the National Electricity Market (the eastern Australian states) on the right was copied at the time I started writing this page. I believe that it is fairly typical, although the amount of renewable generation for the day (83%) was well above average.

There are two transmission lines (interconnectors) connecting SA with Victoria, the Heywood (nominal capacity of 650 MW) and Murraylink (nominal capacity of 220 MW).

The graph shows a maximum import of about 600 MW and a maximum export of about 475 MW on the day. Average power demand within SA is around 1,500 MW.

The long period of exporting power (0930 to 1930) was ten hours at an average of about 240 MW; that is about 2,400 MWh of electrical energy.

Battery use in South Australia in one day
Battery use
The record of the usage of utility-scale batteries in South Australia over one 24 hour period, 2020/05/01; the same day as the import/export record above.
Source Open NEM
The record on the right of utility-scale battery use in South Australia was copied at the same time as the above record of importing and exporting power.

Maximum discharging was 45 MW, the maximum charging was 40 MW.

The Hornsdale batter capacity is 100 MW power and 129 MWh energy (to be increased to 150 MW/193.5 MWh). The second battery, at Dalrymple on Yorke Peninsula is 30 MW/8 MWh; the third battery at Lake Bonney is 25 MW/52 MWh.

The total energy storage capacity of the three batteries (following the upgrade of Hornsdale) will be 254 MWh. This can be seen to be small compared to the amount of daily imports and exports to and from SA.

There is also a 'virtual power plant' in South Australia. This consists of many home batteries that can be, to a limited extent, centrally controlled to help balance the state grid. The aim is to get to 50,000 home batteries, at present there is a trial phase that includes 1,100 batteries. Given that a typical home battery is about 14 kWh, the trial phase capacity is 15 MWh, and the full virtual battery, if it is developed, will be 700 MWh.

Plainly there is a long way to go if batteries are to fill in for a week or so of low wind and solar generation (which is not to say that it is impossible). It should be said that the main intention and use of the batteries is grid stabilisation rather than the supply of gross power.

Sometimes there is too much renewable energy being generated in SA, sometimes there is not enough. What are the options? Where to from here?

Curtailment of wind+utility-scale solar in SA
This graph shows that wind plus utility-scale solar (green and dark yellow) are being curtailed to a maximum of 1,300 MW.
The graph covers the period 2020/04/26 to 2020/05/03. Source Open NEM
The average daily energy consumption in SA is around 36,000 MWh (that's a power demand of about 1,500 MW). The flat top to the combined wind and utility-scale solar power generation in the graph on the right shows that the generation from these two sources is being limited to about 1,300 MW; another indication that renewable energy generation capacity is going to waste at present in SA.

A third power interconnector (transmission line between states) has been proposed; this time between SA and NSW. Its intended capacity is 800 MW and expected cost $1.5 billion.

Half a dozen or so pumped hydro power stations have been proposed in SA. To the present none of these has reached financial close. Their total energy storage capacity, if built, would be at least 6,000 MWh. (Pumped hydro is probably a better fit for Tasmania with its existing well developed hydro power and lower evaporation rates. It will require more interstate transmission interconnection, a second undersea cable across Bass Strait has been proposed.)

Compressed air energy storage (CAES) is another technology that is being developed. See, for example, Hydrostor's Angas Project, apparently under construction a couple hundred kilometres from my home. CAES seems to have much the same advantages and disadvantages as does pumped hydro energy storage, although the round trip efficiency of the former is about 60% while that of the latter can be up to 80%.

More lithium battery capacity can, and most likely will, be built. Flow batteries are an alternative to lithium batteries for some applications and seem to be more environmentally friendly.

Some excess renewably generated power could be used to produce hydrogen which has a number of uses including the production of ammonia, a substance in high demand around the world and that is easily exported. At present 'green hydrogen', hydrogen produced using renewable energy to electrolytically break water into hydrogen and oxygen, is not economically competitive with hydrogen produced by using fossil fuel energy, but the price is rapidly dropping. There are several pilot plants under construction in the state.

Demand response is another factor in the mix; encourage the use of more power when there is plenty of generation by low retail prices, encourage less use when there is a shortage by high retail prices. It is being used to a small extent already, but there is potential for much more. Anything the has some flexibility in time of use can be involved: storage water heaters are an obvious candidate, electric vehicle charging is another, then there's at least some short-term flexibility in air conditioning and refrigeration. On the industrial scale is aluminium smelting (there are no aluminium smelters in SA but there is one close to the Victorian end of the Heywood Interconnector) and possibly desalination (the Adelaide desalination plant produced 4925 Ml of water in April 2020 and, I calculated, used around 25 MW of power).

Electricity is easily and efficiently converted to heat, which can be conveniently stored for limited times. However, converting heat back to electricity is much less efficient.

The advantages and disadvantages of the options

The Hornsdale Power Reserve, AKA Tesla big battery
Big battery
At the Hornsdale Wind Farm north of Jamestown in northern SA
Photo taken 2018/01/14 by my Phantom 3 Advanced drone


Lithium batteries
  • Very quick response to demand
  • Quick to build
  • Lowest price to build
Flow batteries (as an alternative to lithium batteries)
  • Can use more common and less environmentally damaging elements
  • More amenable to recycling
Pumped hydro
  • The water is used repeatedly, unlike in conventional hydro power
  • Long life
  • Requires conventional materials
Interstate interconnectors (transmission lines)
  • The materials are fully and easily recyclable
  • Long life
  • Requires conventional materials
  • The excess power in one place becomes available in another place
Using excess power to produce 'green' hydrogen
  • Hydrogen can be used to power fuel cell vehicles
  • Hydrogen can be mixed with natural gas (at levels up to about 10%) and used for the same purposes as natural gas
  • Hydrogen can be burned to generate electricity
  • There is a growing world-wide demand for green hydrogen
  • Hydrogen can be combined with nitrogen to produce ammonia, which has many industrial uses and is easily shipped
Demand response
  • Little additional infrastructure is needed
  • Can be developed quickly

Turbines of Clements Gap Wind Farm
Drone photo
Clements Gap Wind Farm is about 15km from my home in Crystal Brook.
My region, Mid-North SA, is leading Australia in renewable energy development.


Lithium batteries
  • Relatively short life (compared to transmission lines and pumped hydro stations)
  • There are environmental costs in lithium mining. (For example see The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction.)
  • There are environmental costs in cobalt mining (substantial amounts of cobalt are required for lithium batteries)
  • The recycling of lithium batteries is not settled. "No recycling technology exists today that is capable of producing pure enough lithium for a second use in batteries"; Recycling batteries.
  • This seems to be the least sustainable of the available options
Flow batteries (as an alternative to lithium batteries)
  • Too bulky to be suitable for vehicles?
  • Further from achieving the economies of scale
Pumped hydro
  • Water is lost to evaporation from both the upper and lower storages
  • If seawater is used there are problems with corrosion and fouling by marine organisms or there are contamination issues if antifouling chemicals are used.
  • Slower response to demand than batteries (the response time largely depends on the length of the pipe between upper and lower reservoirs – Snowy 2 will be very slow due to its 20 km+ tunnel).
'Green' hydrogen and/or ammonia
  • High cost (but the cost is declining and may be competitive in a decade or two)
  • The process of generating green hydrogen is not energy efficient (but may be viable when the wholesale price of electricity is very low)
  • Burning hydrogen to power electricity generation is no more efficient than burning any other fuel
Interstate interconnectors (transmission lines)
  • Collision with power lines is the biggest human-related cause of bird deaths after domestic and feral cats (for example, see 9 leading causes of bird deaths in Canada)
  • Very expensive to build
  • Susceptible to storm damage
Demand response
  • Electricity consumers would have to accept some control over their time of use from the grid controller
  • New metering would be needed if used on the domestic scale
  • Would require control protocols developed on the Internet if used on the domestic scale
There are losses of power in the charging and discharging of batteries, in the pumping of water and in hydro turbines, and from long transmission lines. The losses in converting electrical energy into hydrogen and in converting hydrogen into useful forms of energy are greater.

Bungala solar farm, completed
Photo taken by my Mavic Mini drone, 2020/03/26. Click on image to view full size, 'back' to return
We visited Bungala Solar Farm on our way north to stay at Willow Springs in the Flinders Ranges at the beginning of the first outbreak of Covid-19. Bungala is, I believe, the biggest solar farm in Australia (275 MW?); we had previously seen it when it was under construction.

Related pages

Many links are scattered through the text.

Related pages on external sites...

Recycling batteries; the challenges, what can be done, what is being done.

The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction; Wired.co.uk

Flow batteries; Wikipedia

South Australia's virtual power plant; combining thousands of domestic batteries to improve grid supply and demand.

Journal of Sustainable Mining; Life cycle assessment of cobalt extraction process, Shahjadi Hisan Farjana, Nazmul Huda, M.A. Parvez Mahmud

Collision with transmission lines is the biggest human-related cause of bird deaths after domestic and feral cats (for example, see 9 leading causes of bird deaths in Canada)

Australia’s first compressed air energy storage system gets development approval, 2019/07/17, Renew Economy, written by Michael Mazengarb.

Related pages on this site...

Bird deaths from wind turbines collision and other causes

Who wants renewable energy?

End of coal: why the coal industry has a very limited future.

Greenhouse/climate change: the greatest threat currently facing mankind.

Hydrogen and energy

Killer coal: how the burning of coal kills millions of people world-wide each year.

Power to Gas (P2G, renewable energy used to produced hydrogen gas) in Australia.

Pumped hydro energy storage.

SA's energy future

South Australia's success in changing toward renewable energy

Which electricity generation method should Australia choose for the future?

Which would you prefer, wind energy or fossil fuels?

Why support wind power

Why would you choose nuclear power?

Wind power opposition: almost universally dishonest.