Two developers are set to duke it out over a 24-mile stretch of water that is key to Spain becoming Europe’s leading pumped hydro market.

The developers, Ingenieria Pontificia and Romero Polo Group, have put forward plans for pumped hydro facilities at opposite ends of the same reservoir. And Romero Polo claims that the Riba-roja reservoir on the Ebro River just isn’t big enough for both projects. 

The plants, Mont-Negre in the province of Zaragoza and Gironés & Raïmats in Tarragona, have both been registered as European Union projects of common interest. That puts them on the same footing as interconnection programs in terms of eligibility for EU funding. 

But the two projects “are clearly incompatible...for hydraulic, electrical and environmental reasons,” said Gironés & Raïmats developer Romero Polo in documentation hosted by the European Network for Transmission System Operators — Electricity (ENTSO-E), an industry body.

“The volume of the Riba-roja reservoir does not allow the joint operation of two large-capacity hydro-pumping stations and their compatibility with existing uses,” Romero Polo said. “The water authority has considered that both projects are in competition and, therefore, are incompatible.”

Furthermore, said the developer, the Riba-roja is part of the Natura 2000 European network of core breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species. 

“European regulations indicate that in the case of alternative projects, only the project that minimizes impacts on Natura 2000 sites should be authorized,” Romero Polo noted.

Neither developer responded to requests for information from GTM. Nor did the Spanish Ministry for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge, although the ministry’s 2021-2030 National Energy and Climate Plan (Plan Nacional Integrado de Energía y Clima, or PNIEC) hints that only one of the projects is expected to go ahead.

Pumped hydro in Europe 

The 3.3-gigawatt Mont-Negre and the 3.1 GW Gironés & Raïmats plants are both almost equal to the extra 3.5 GW of pumped hydro capacity that Spain expects to install over the coming decade.

A third project, Navaleo in Leon, would supply 552 megawatts of capacity and allow Spain to achieve its PNIEC objective. Navaleo has also been registered as a project of common interest. 

The new capacity would put Spain ahead of Austria and Europe’s current pumped hydro leader, Italy, according to ENTSO-E data released in a quarterly report on electricity markets issued by the European Commission last year.  

The report showed that Spain, currently fourth behind Italy, Germany and Austria, has more operational, planned and announced pumped hydro capacity than any other country in Europe. 

It is unclear if the incompatibility between the Mont-Negre and Gironés & Raïmats projects could ultimately lead to Spain lagging behind Germany, which today has Europe’s second-largest pumped hydro capacity figures and has also announced significant planned increases. 

It is also uncertain exactly how Spain intends to procure the extra capacity given that investors will likely need a minimum 40-year offtake contract to allow the capex-heavy projects to pan out, according to Rory McCarthy, senior research manager for European power at Wood Mackenzie. 

“Anything less than that, it’s going to lose” in a traditional auction setting, he told GTM in an interview. “It’s not going to win against batteries, even at this stage.”

Based on this analysis, it seems the Spanish government will have to tailor an auction specifically to pumped hydro if it wants to attract private investment for the projects. 

Energy storage needed for the shift to renewable energy 

Axel Narváez Kirkpatrick, managing director of Spain at Augusta & Co., a specialist financial advisory and investment house, told GTM in an interview that new pumped hydro would be needed to replace generation capacity lost through the phaseout of old Spanish nuclear plants. 

“By 2030 we would only have 3 GW [of nuclear],” he said. “Today we have 7.4 GW of installed capacity. Pumped hydro is going to ease the closing of the nuclear plants.”

He added that new pumped hydro reserves could help Spain cater more cost-effectively for peak power demands that are currently being met through expensive thermal plants. This is a topic that has created headlines in recent days as utility bills have soared in freezing weather. 

Spain’s plans for pumped hydro come as regulators increasingly look for long-duration energy storage options to achieve fully decarbonized electricity supplies. 

This month, for example, the Hawaiian island of Kauai unveiled plans for a solar-charged pumped hydro plant that could help achieve an 80 percent clean energy electricity mix by the mid-2020s.

Europe's ambitious carbon-reduction goals will require "greater investment in hydropower projects in Spain and all across the continent,” said Will Henley, head of communications at the International Hydropower Association, in an email. 

“As a clean-water battery, pumped storage hydropower in particular provides multiple benefits through its flexibility and storage, complementing and supercharging variable solar and wind power.”