The Giant Water Battery From Canary Islands to Transform the Economy

Canary Islands’ giant water battery, when operational, is set to double renewable energy capacity and create thousands of jobs.

The Canary Islands’ Gran Canaria is famous for its stunning beaches, year-round sunshine, and volcanic past. However, due to its location far from mainland Europe, the island relies heavily on imported fossil fuels to power its growing economy. 

In fact, 76% of its electricity comes from burning oil. To tackle this problem, the government has invested heavily in renewable energies to harness the island’s abundant wind and solar resources. In 2022, renewables accounted for 24% of the island’s energy mix, up from just 12% in 2018. 

But as more renewables come online, the island faces another challenge: energy storage.

To address this issue, the government invested €400 million in the Canary Islands’ first-ever energy storage scheme last year. The Salto de Chira project will convert two existing dams into one giant water battery, pumping water from the Soria dam into the Chira dam during periods of low energy demand. 

When energy demand is high, water will be released from Chira, down a tunnel, over a set of turbines, and back into Soria. This process is commonly known as “pumped hydro,” as it can store and release power on demand. 

Pumped hydro is the most widely deployed storage technology globally, accounting for over 90% of global energy storage capacity, according to the International Energy Agency.

Once the Salto de Chira project comes online in 2027, it is expected to generate up to 200MW of power during peak demand, which is equivalent to more than a third of the island’s needs. GE Energy has been selected by Spain’s grid operator Red Eléctrica to supply the turbines for the project. 

According to Red Eléctrica, the project will increase the island’s share of renewables from 24% to 51%, save €122 million a year in imported fossil fuel, and create more than 4,300 jobs, with around 3,500 on Gran Canaria itself.

The President of the Canary Islands, Ángel Víctor Torres, has called the project a “great boost” to the archipelago’s ambitions of fully decarbonizing its economy by 2040, ten years ahead of the targets set by the EU.

“Energy storage is going to be one of the key elements in the energy transition, both for its contribution to electrification and for its capacity to enable enhanced management of renewable energy, which is especially important in non-interconnected systems such as the islands,” he said.

The Canary Islands has significantly ramped up its decarbonization efforts in the last five years. The archipelago’s largest renewable energy complex, comprising eight wind farms and 12 solar plants, was inaugurated in 2022 and provides enough energy for around 54,000 households. 

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Spain’s government and the European Union have also announced plans to provide €20 million in funding to support the development of 65 new solar projects across the Canary Islands by the end of next year. The archipelago is also exploring alternatives such as wave energy, with the first such pilot project launched in February, led by Danish startup Wavepiston.

According to a study, the success of all these projects will depend on the deployment of sufficient energy storage solutions to stabilize the grid during peak demand and the construction of sea cables to connect the islands. 

Pumped hydro seems to be taking care of the former, while the latter is gaining momentum with the first of many power links now under construction to connect Tenerife and La Gomera. The links are expected to decrease the cost of electricity for taxpayers and improve energy security in the archipelago.

The European Association for Storage of Energy (EASE) estimates that the EU will need 200GW of energy storage by the end of the decade and 600GW by 2050 to meet its climate targets. This means that the development of sustainable energy storage technologies like batteries, hydrogen, and pumped hydro will be crucial in building a future-proof, resilient, and decarbonized energy system.

While pumped hydro projects can be controversial, particularly when they involve the construction of new dams that flood land and affect ecosystems, most pumped hydro projects do not require new dams, but the retrofitting of existing ones, as is the case with the Salto de Chira project.

In fact, the IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 report estimates that an additional 1300GW of hydropower will be required to meet the climate targets outlined in the Paris Agreement, double the current global capacity.

Therefore, Salto de Chira pumped hydro project in the Canary Islands represents a significant step towards the decarbonization of the region’s economy, and it is a key example of how energy storage solutions like pumped hydro can help balance the intermittent supply of renewable energy and increase energy security. 

As countries across Europe and around the world continue to transition towards more sustainable energy systems, the development of energy storage technologies like pumped hydro will be crucial in building a future.

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