In 2009 I presented a paper evaluating the largest potential pumped storage opportunity anywhere in North America: the Lake Erie/Lake Ontario System. The proposed Isthmus of Niagara project (“Niagara Pumped Storage”) does not require that any dry land be flooded (except for minor canal surface area) to implement, and so would arguably have much less environmental impact than a comparable project based on new reservoirs. Niagara pumped storage is in essence an energy storage scheme that is capable of providing enough storage capacity to harmonize the available power from wind, tidal, and solar sources with power demand in a large portion of the US and Canada. Although the storage capacity at Niagara could be devoted to economic dispatch of nuclear and run-of-river hydro power, this potential use for pumped storage between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario would fail to utilize the unique potential for energy storage over much longer periods than any other pumped storage facility in the world.
The average 99.4 meter difference of elevation between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined with their large surface area would provide 1300 gigawatt-hours of stored energy (at 70% overall efficiency) if the level in Lake Ontario is allowed to vary by 30 cm during a charge/discharge cycle (less than the typical seasonal variation of Lake Ontario’s level, which is about 45 cm). I defined project characteristics for a 10 GW pumped storage facility. Although it would be a massive engineering project to realize the storage potential of these lakes, the benefits for not having to purchase the land, create the reservoirs, and flood dry land for the pumped storage project are very large advantages of the scheme. The proposed facility would be uniquely able to deal with peak demand or low wind periods lasting for more than a week. This presentation to the Electricity Storage Association National meeting in May 2009 also described the natural synergism of Niagara Pumped Storage with an HVDC supergrid. It was based on an earlier grant application to NYSERDA (New York state Energy Research and Development Authority).
There is no question that this scheme would work; though it is very big, it is completely conventional. Imre Gyuk, who was then and still is now in charge of the US Department of Energy’s energy storage initiative pulled me aside at cocktail hour at the conference and said “Interesting idea…and it would work…but it will never happen!” In that regard, it is rather like the carbon tax; something we all know could really work, but which conventional wisdom says is completely impossible politically. I personally think we are heading for a real climate crisis which will upset notions of what is feasible politically.
The Niagara Pumped Storage scheme makes no sense unless it is part of a continental scale North American supergrid. I am not working to move the NPS concept forward any more, but perhaps it will spark the imagination of someone else out there. When the true implications of climate change become obvious, and even the naysayers can no longer defend doing nothing, big ideas like this may suddenly become politically feasible. Just for a hint of the scale; this scheme implies sloshing a flow between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario that exceeds the flow of the Columbia River (but less than the Mississippi)…really big hydro-engineering!