A team of engineers have developed a system that adapts hydropower, which is one of the oldest forms of energy storage, to store and release electrical energy from the gentle slopes of UK hills rather than requiring steep dam walls and mountains that have been used thus far. How will this work exactly, and why is it important?
Hydropower means making use of water to power machinery, or make electricity. Water moves through a global cycle; it evaporates from lakes and oceans which forms clouds, then goes on to precipitate in forms such as rain and snow, which eventually flows back into the ocean. The energy of this water cycle is driven by the sun, and can also be tapped into to produce electricity. The capturing of flowing water is called hydroelectric power, or hydropower.
There are several types of hydroelectric facilities which are all powered by kinetic energy of flowing water—as it moves downstream, turbines and generators convert the kinetic energy into electrical energy, which is then fed into electricity for use in daily life.
Basically, it harnesses the energy produced by water in motion, such as water flowing over a waterfall, to generate electricity. To scale it down and translate this process in a way which is easier to understand, over two thousand years ago Greeks used flowing water to turn the wheel of a mill to ground wheat into flour. Pretty clever, right?
The gentle hills renowned to the UK may be potential hydropower sites, so that giant waterfalls and dams may be used less. Building these sites alongside hills will turn out to be quicker and cheaper, and will also lead to fewer negative environmental impacts. Not only do these bigger hydropower plants affect the natural flow and life of rivers, they also jeopardise the health of what lives in and around them.
“Academic research has found that up to 30 freshwater fish species in the Balkans face extinction if all planned hydropower projects in the region go ahead,” reports The Guardian. Associate professor at the Karl-Franzens university of Graz, Steven Weiss, also told the news site that “We must understand that the already high demand for water resources, especially in southern Europe will be exacerbated by such large-scale hydropower exploitation, resulting in a deadly combination for freshwater diversity.”
The far smaller, yet hopefully just as productive, hillside projects would mimic traditional hydropower plants. Excess electricity would be used to pump water up the hills, to then be released back down through turbines to generate electricity when needed.
However, for this to work, the water would need to be a mineral rich fluid, more than two and a half times the density of water, to generate the same amount of electricity from these smaller slopes. RheEnergise, which is the company behind these new plans, has come up with formulas and solutions to this and states that it is “bringing innovation to pumped hydro storage. We call our new solution High-Density Hydro ™. HD Hydro ™ uses our proprietary HD Fluid R-19 ™, which has 2.5x the density of water. R-19 gives RheEnergise projects 2.5x the power and 2.5x the energy when compared to water.”
RheEnergise has said that the creation of these sites will provide a much lower cost alternative to what has been used in the past, and claims that the HD fluid R-19 it uses, which is engineered to be non-reactive and non-corrosive towards the environment, will also unlock hundreds more suitable sites. The fluid will be stored in an Olympic-sized swimming pool underground, awaiting release back down the hill over generating turbines when needed, which in effect will return the electricity used by its pumps earlier back to the electrical grid.
This project alone has the potential to create a total of 7 gigawatts (GW) of energy storage to help the UK use more renewable electricity, and according to a report by Aurora Energy Research, the UK is expected to need around 13GW of flexible clean energy generation and storage to balance the electricity grid by the end of the decade.
RheEnergise isn’t the only company looking at the generation of renewable energy in parallel concepts to hydropower; Gravitricity is another, it’s an Edinburgh-based company which plans to create ‘gravity energy’ by dropping weights down disused mine shafts. All in all, any steps towards a cleaner planet is a positive step, and processes such as gravity energy or hydroelectric plants (environmentally unintrusive ones) are half the cost of lithium-ion batteries and far quicker to build than traditional renewable energy projects.
Traditional hydroelectric plants are one of the biggest obstacles to overcome when it comes to healing our rivers, but the transitions that RheEnergise plans show that there is a way to continue our necessary and looming mission to support and change a sick climate. Climate change remains our largest threat, thanks to naive mistakes, but it’s in correcting, reflecting and adjusting those mistakes that we’re giving not only our planet but ourselves another chance.
Therapy is no place for a lie, so I had better begin with truth. The new year will demand that the media output is accordingly hopeful. The first theme of this inexpert climate therapy column was supposed to be “hope”. New year, old problems but with a chipper twist of enthusiasm for wrenching out our bad habits and saving the planet. In 2019 you will be met with a screen full of tips for wellness and newness. Few column inches will be consecrated to the fact that last year you did not solve the environmental challenges humanity faces. Few media outlets will remind you in the first fortnight of 2019 about the problems we didn’t leave behind in 2018.
I tried to start the new year on a positive note like the rest of them but I’ve a drone in my bonnet. The week before Christmas some pesky, “brainless” (The Sun), “eco-warrior lone-wolf” (The Sun again), “fat idiot” (WTF, Jeremy Clarkson) was zipping around the fringes of Gatwick airport. My family was scheduled to fly out and join me in Norway for Christmas, so we collectively held our breath for the lone-wolf to stop driving through the sky (drone, not Santa) in time for Christmas.
While the cat and mouse palaver unfolded, I happened to be on the phone to Liam Geary Baulch, an Action Coordinator at Extinction Rebellion. Extinction Rebellion is an activist organisation which practices non-violent civil disobedience to protest inefficient government action against climate change. Geary Baulch is an artist and activist who focuses his research on the mental health of activists and climate scientists. He was pleased to talk to me about the feelings that climate change brings up but which we push deep down and have allowed to fester beneath our social conscience for decades.
Climate scientists and activists have written in the press for a number of years about their climate change related distress, and yet little has been done in the way of a public therapy session. Geary Baulch and I talked about the trauma of losing our planet’s biodiversity. We discussed hope and how to mobilise the public through emotive campaigns. I wondered if it was fair to condemn one group of people for deploying emotionally charged public speech and praise the other when it suits my agenda.
And then I asked, “it’s not you guys behind the drones is it?” A selfish question to a person already carrying the weight of emotional labour for another. Geary Baulch graciously corrected me, letting me know that Extinction Rebellion puts their name to their actions. Extinction Rebellion did have reporters ring in that day with the same question, though. Doing something is more hopeful than sitting ducks. A tale of hope and action is attractive.
People find Extinction Rebellion’s emotive language and approach to climate action comforting. Geary Baulch explains that the Extinction Rebellion talks across the country have created crucial support systems for members of the public who need to talk about their emotional responses to climate fear. “That human, emotional level of dealing with this is how we have grown. Whenever we’re doing actions physically on the ground, with people on the streets, that’s when our reach expands massively. I think there is something inspiring about it.”
On April 15 of 2019, Extinction Rebellion will stage their International Rebellion Week. I hope this year the media will make more space to cheer on a growing number of climate activists demanding systemic changes against climate inaction.
Phone call with climate activist over. Try to write about hope. Drink a beer and take a nap because it’s December 20 and no one else is replying to emails. Most of my writing takes on shape in the moment between wakefulness and napfulness anyway.
The image of the drone followed me into my lull. Was an “eco-warrior” out there making a stand against people like my family who were pumping carbon into the air to join me for a Christian festival of pretending? Still now the drone mystery has not been settled, but people were excited at the prospect of someone taking radical action against polluting infrastructures. It is like an arty b-list film where the plot is never resolved and instead it is the unfolding of the protagonist’s self-awareness which takes centre-stage.
I could not write about hope without addressing the reality that I have not changed my consumer habits enough this year. I still take planes, buy plastic, recycle sloppily, eat meat and fund H&M’s natural resource depletion. I feel the familiar dredge of guilt rather than a wave of fresh hope.
Guilt can root itself so deeply in ourselves and our relations that we barely notice it is there, and this prevents the actions for change that we urgently need to take. We are caught in our own systems and things and systems of things. Is it unreasonable to expect us to identify that beneath the noise, we feel desperately guilty about our environmental inertia? Lots of us are not doing enough, aside from refusing a plastic straw in our gin and tonic, to prevent the climate catastrophe rearing up on us.
We feel guilty before we achieve change. Guilty for not quitting, or starting, something we should. We do feel calmer once we start our homework, our tax return or begin an overdue, difficult conversation. Until we talk about our collective and individual culpability we cannot begin to dig up the insidious guilt that steels us against progress. We should begin the new year backwards, by addressing the old lies we tell ourselves: that it will be ok, that science will solve it and that the human disposition for pretence has nothing to do with solving the climate crisis.
Humans made this mess, some humans more than others. A human approach to understanding the emotional complexity of inaction is worth a run. My top 2019 tip: a novel public resolution to solve a sticky problem is all the newness we need this year.