Eco Innovation

Increasing energy storage: an alternative to avoiding blackouts

23rd January 2023
Kristian McCann

As Western nations continue to battle a global energy crisis arising from supply-side issues, many countries are taking measures to keep the lights on and avoid blackouts.

France legislated sobriété énergétiqueto reduce its energy use by 10%alongside plans revive its nuclear power industryGermany created an additional LNG terminal and aims to replace electricity production through less gas and more coal, and Britain’s National Grid will, in addition to other plans, pay people to not use energy at peak times. But is paying out really the best way to tackle the issue?

The energy crisis has uncovered the cracks in the UK’s energy infrastructure. ESOs have scrambled to forge a short-term plan to ease the threat of blackouts this winter, which will be activated for the first time tonight,says David Hall, VP Power Systems, Schneider Electric UK&I. “However, this is merely a sticking plaster on an even bigger issue; an outdated energy system incapable of flexing to modern energy demands.” 

The UK has a burgeoning renewable sector that, alongside the energy generated through things like coal and gas, help power its national power grid. Currently, the UK’s renewable energy sources’ largest focus is on onshore and offshore wind power. The country ranks in the top four countries with the most wind power,and the gusts experienced there consistently allow it to generate nearly a quarter of its annual electricity needs. And unlike a lot of the coal, oil or gas, the energy created through its renewables is domestically produced, which means it isn’t subject to the same supply-side shocks. But there’s a problem, there isn’t enough battery storage capacity to collect all it generatesAnalysis revealed the UK has at key times wasted enough wind energy to power up to 500,000 homes a day.  

Renewable energy storage  

Currently, energy generated by renewables like wind power has two destinations, to the grid, and into storage called long duration electricity storage (LDES). When more renewable power is generated than needed, it can be sent to be stored at these LDES so it can be used at a later date. This storage can act as a reserve that can be drawn upon in times of increased usage, like a particular cold snap, or can bolster supply when external demand is decreased, like with the currently experienced gas shortage. The UK has capacity to store around 3GW of energy in LDES.  

Currently, when it’s a particularly windy time, the grid will draw all the energy it can from energy generated from these turbines, an excess will be delivered into storage, and the rest goes unused, with turbines even having to be powered down to ensure grid stability in a yearly cost that runs into the hundreds of millions of pounds. 

Spend money to save money  

It’s shown a number of costs go into the UK’s current failure to fully incorporate and harvest energy generated through their renewables like wind power. Yet the UK plans to raise its offshore wind target by 10GW to 50GW by 2030, which means the UK’s LDES capacity would have to rise up to 10 times its current capacity to be able to use such energy, according to Aurora Energy Research’s recent report 

On a consumer side, David believes a smart grid can pick up the slack in the grid’s current capacity issues and alleviate the immediate issues by using the energy it does have more efficiently. “With greater investment into smart, digital grids, the UK need not fear blackouts or disruptions in usage. Harnessing a smarter grid would bolster our energy supply by creating cost-effective, resilient network efficiencies that protect consumers while incorporating a greater mix of renewable energy.” In addition to efficiencies, smart grid users who have renewable energy generation and storage of their own could then act as surrogate storage for the grid who can then buy the energy from them during peak demands. As David states: In turn, this will enable a prosumer revolution – potentially putting a greater share of the energy supply back into the hands of consumers and businesses. It should be the norm for consumers to sell energy back to the grid in off-peak times, not a prize, granting them an additional stream of revenue as well as greater control over their usage in this era of uncertainty." 

But despite current shortcomings, UK battery storage has been making headway: A 50MW lithium-ion battery energy storage system on the outskirts of Oxford has come online, and Europe’s largest battery storage centre, capable of 196MWh of electricity storage, near Hull, both opened within a year of each other. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has also allocated £6.7mn towards new LDES technologies in the first funding round under a £68mn LDES support programme. 

Yet in the word of a SSE Renewables spokesperson: "The strategy is positive about the role of long duration storage but falls short of including a policy decision,” that plus SSE's claims of "massive ramp up" of LDES being needed shows the UK may still be some distance away from a time where paying people not to use their energy is a thing of the past. 

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