Exploring water-energy integration options for the Mekong

To meet growing energy demands and utilise existing infrastructure, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has been exploring Pumped Storage Hydropower (PSH) as an option for energy storage and production in the region. A series of previous studies within the MRC Proactive Regional Planning process focus on storage options, sediment transport, hydrological limits for wetlands or the environment, and water-energy integration options. The water-energy integration study in particular focuses on options for pumped storage hydropower in the region.

In late February 2024 more than 50 participants from across MRC member country governments, the private sector, civil society and donor organisations met at the Lam Ta Khong pumped storage hydropower facility in Thailand for a workshop to explore the range of water-energy integration options for the Mekong region.

The joint Mekong River Commission – Australian National University (ANU) project, supported by the Australian Water Partnership, is focusing on how solar and wind backed by pumped storage hydropower can complement existing run-of-river hydropower in the region, and link to improved water management for the MRC member countries.

The workshop was an opportunity for participants to visit the Lam Ta Khong facility and learn about Thailand’s use of pumped storage hydropower in the Thai national grid. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand currently owns and operates three pumped storage hydropower projects with a total installed PSH capacity of 1,531 MW, including the 1,000 MW Lam Ta Khong Facility. Thailand uses pumped storage hydropower to provide peaking power capacity.

The workshop helped to deepen understanding about MRC’s interest in pumped storage hydropower, which forms part of their overall interest in having a management response to changing environmental conditions, as outlined in the MRC’s Basin Development Strategy 2021-2030 & Strategic Plan 2021-2025.

Workshop participants learnt about ANU modelling tools, which show potential PSH sites. The ANU global PSH atlas grades sites by colour to determine whether they can use existing infrastructure or environmental flows to support potential PSH systems. These tools provide energy balance modelling to help energy planners ensure future generation and storage capacities meet demand requirements, and also help the energy sector to identify the best solar and wind sites in the vicinity of existing and planned transmission infrastructure.

Thank you to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand for hosting the workshop. (Image: ANU)

These tools have demonstrated that the Mekong region has almost 25,000 potential sites either with existing infrastructure or the capacity to develop new reservoirs. They’ve also shown the different combinations of solar, wind and PSH resources to support annual per capita electricity demand of 3 MWh, 6 MWh, and 9 MWh, and indicated the lowest cost areas for solar development in the region, based on a coarse region-wide analysis.

In particular, wind power will be a key driver of lower cost electricity in the future Mekong region grid. This is because on-shore wind is the cheapest electricity generation technology, and while solar irradiation in the Mekong region is good, there are sufficient sites for wind to be installed that wind power is the key factor in lower cost electricity.

Pumped storage hydropower and batteries play different, and complementary, roles in a renewables-based electricity grid, with PSH being the most suitable technology for bulk energy storage. PSH is suitable for bulk energy storage because it is the cheapest way to store energy (per MWh), it has low greenhouse gas emissions, and there is more than 100 times as much PSH potential among Mekong countries as would be required for a 100% variable renewables-based electricity supply.

And, as electricity consumption grows, the required energy storage capacity grows significantly.

To build on the work done under this project, the team will hold regional and bi-lateral workshops and capacity development to further enhance stakeholders’ capacity to use the ANU models, as well as undertake hydrological analysis of the potential flood control capacity if existing conventional hydropower reservoirs were to be repurposed following solar – wind – PSH development. Further modelling will also be undertaken for the Lower Mekong Basin countries using the ANU models.

A regionally connected grid can deliver benefits to all four MRC member countries.

Feature image: Lam Ta Khong upper and Lower Reservoirs (Credit: ANU)

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