Our most-read stories of 2016

Last year's hottest stories in Energy Storage Report. Pics: Electro Power Systems, Aquion Energy, Kreisel Electric, Capacitor Sciences, SunPower and Concept by US.

Last year’s hottest stories in Energy Storage Report. Pics: Electro Power Systems, Aquion Energy, Kreisel Electric, Capacitor Sciences, SunPower and Concept by US.

By Jason Deign

The year 2016 will probably be remembered as the point at which energy storage began to take off in earnest.

Projects came thick and fast as interest in storage extended quickly beyond early hotspots such as California and Germany.

We saw grid-scale storage playing a starring role in the UK’s frequency response market, while battery makers jostled for position in an increasingly buoyant Australian consumer market. And that was just a couple of examples.

Almost every major energy market in Asia, Europe and North America had a storage story to tell. But which were the ones that caught your eye? Here’s a rundown of our most popular headlines from 2016. 
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UK energy storage: why a Brexit may be good

Britons discussing the Brexit in a pub yesterday. Photo: www.animam.photography.

Britons discussing the Brexit in a pub yesterday. Photo: www.animam.photography.

By Jason Deign

UK renewable energy interests could face significant market disruption if Britons vote to leave the European Union (EU) in a referendum this month.

But while sectors such as wind energy fret over what a so-called ‘Brexit’ could mean for European-led subsidy programmes, whether or not a departure could harm the UK’s nascent energy storage market is less clear-cut.

In particular, the fact that storage is already being deployed in the UK without any form of government support means further growth in the market may not be dependent on political links with Europe.

Last month, for example, the UK’s National Grid launched the first battery system in Great Britain to provide sub-second frequency response services.

Hertfordshire, England-based Renewable Energy Systems won the bid to provide 2MW of storage capacity under a four-year contract.
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On to a new Energy Storage Report

Energy Storage Report is changing.

Energy Storage Report is changing. Photo credit: Sid Mosdell

Next week Energy Storage Report will be a year old. It has been an eventful 12 months. We have seen and learned a lot, charting the emergence of the first proper energy storage market in Germany, reporting from industry events such as Energy Storage 2013 and analysing the impact of important studies such as the research from Stanford University.

Along the way we have built up a solid newsletter following, established a vibrant Twitter community and amassed one of the world’s biggest and best collections of energy storage industry news on our web site. But it is time for a change. As the energy storage sector rapidly matures, the amount of news it generates is increasing. At the same time, though, the value of individual announcements is lessened.
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Opinion: a plea for joined-up thinking

This article was previously published in Marine Renewable Energy.

It seemed an innocent enough story at the time. We ran an article in which Sven Teske, director of Greenpeace International’s Renewable Energy Campaign, sounded a note of caution about Germany’s growing love affair with residential energy storage.

Germany had recently introduced incentives for battery storage that will largely encourage homeowners to store some of the power they get from roof-mounted solar panels. No problem at all with that. Only, as Teske pointed out, if homeowners are hoping to get rid of their electricity bills altogether they are in for an upset when the gloomy German winter sets in.

A residential battery pack big enough to last all winter is simply too costly to be worth it. That is why German communities might want to look at energy storage on a larger scale, believes Teske. Not everyone seems to agree, however. The article sparked spirited email and Twitter comments from observers in the energy storage sector.

System developer Younicos waded in with the notion that batteries could support solar power in the summer and wind in the winter. Leaving aside the validity or otherwise of the ideas under discussion, the episode was an instructive one for renewable energy professionals because it highlighted a much more significant issue: we don’t know where we are going.

Incentives and regulatory frameworks for renewable energy vary greatly between countries and technologies. They change radically over time, too. Thus five years ago the big opportunities for wind energy, for example, used to be onshore in places such as Spain and Germany. Now they are increasingly offshore and in countries such as the UK and France.

Much has been written about how this pick-and-choose approach to regulation damages the prospects of particular renewable energy markets. As some of these markets (notably wind and solar) start to mature, though, further cracks are starting to appear.

Take Germany: compared to most European nations, the country deserves full marks for its support for renewables, but now it is churning out significant amounts of green power it is becoming apparent that more is needed. Nobody appears to have given much thought to renewable energy surpluses, for example.

Right now, there are indications Germany’s neighbours are already losing patience with being used as dumping grounds for spare generation capacity. And it seems the country’s current support for residential battery storage is driven as much as anything by a desire to keep further renewable power, generated by homeowners, from overloading the grid.

You could argue that part of this situation is due to Germany’s late implementation of smart grid technology, which could potentially give the power network added flexibility to absorb renewable power. That may be a simplistic view, however.

More likely, each country would need to implement a combination of smart grid and energy storage technologies to be able to maximise the integration of renewable energy. Nobody seems to be thinking about how to do this.

At the European level, meanwhile, somebody should be thinking about cross-border power connections and the creation of a supergrid to ship renewable energy across the continent. Nobody appears to be doing this, either.

Finally, someone should be making sure the European strategy and objectives are closely linked to the strategy and capabilities of each country. Plenty of winter wind power coming off the North Sea? Hey, send it off to the Mediterranean. Scandinavia sweltering in a heat wave? Use some of Germany’s excess solar power to cool things down. Simple. Yet find the person working on it.

All of this poses a problem for renewable energy plant developers and operators because it means they are essentially being asked to stake heavy investments on markets which are poorly thought out and liable to change. They are also in many cases being asked to produce energy without much idea of where that energy could or should end up.

Hence ridiculous concepts such as curtailment, which essentially amounts to getting someone to invest large amounts in a plant and then forcing them to switch it off.

This is just a guess, but one suspects that with the right combination of Europe-wide smart grid, supergrid and energy storage technology, curtailment would be virtually irrelevant, as would many national infrastructure investments. Of course, the likelihood of European nations collaborating at this level is pretty far-fetched.

But there is no reason why Europe’s clean-tech industries could not lead the way. At the moment there are plenty of bodies and events for industries such as wind, solar, tidal, wave, smart grid, supergrid and energy storage, not to mention those associated with traditional power generation.

But where are the cross-links between these? Where are the pan-technology strategy sessions and planning summits? Where is the meeting of minds? This is something the energy sector is crying out for, so let us get to work on it… if only so journalists can print unassuming stories about battery storage without inviting a barrage of dissenting views.

Could Nordics be Europe’s battery pack?

This article was previously published in Marine Renewable Energy.
It is a bit like buses: you wait ages for a North Atlantic power interconnector and then two come along at once. At the moment it is fair to say there is a lot of interest in getting an energy link set up between Norway and the UK. First up on the road to better energy connections across the North Sea is a project called HVDC Norway-UK, backed in equal parts by the grid operators of the two countries concerned: Norway’s Statnett and the National Grid in the UK.

This scheme, which has been under discussion since 2003, would see the development of a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) link with a 1,400MW capacity. The Norwegians have selected Suldal, in the south west of the country, as their landing point. Meanwhile the UK terminal has moved somewhat since the project’s inception.

Originally it was due to be in Northern Ireland: Easington in County Durham, to be precise. The location has since moved to Blyth, Northeast England, involving a route that would require around 710 km of cable. Statnett and National Grid figure the project would cost GBP£1.3 billion and could be operational in 2020. But since 2011 it has had a competitor, in the form of a scheme called NorthConnect.

Again featuring a 1,400MW HVDC link, NorthConnect is very much a Nordic energy sector affair, with a list of backers that reads like a who’s who of the Scandinavian power industry. It includes the Norwegian electricity firms Agder Energi, E-CO and Lyse, and the Swedish energy giant Vattenfall. Sources close to the project have confirmed the partners do not all have equal shares in it.

The proposed UK landing point for NorthConnect is in Scotland, at Peterhead Aberdeenshire, rather than England. And the project is currently due to kick off around 2019 or 2020, with a £1.75 billion price tag. It is unlikely that both projects will go ahead at the same time, and NorthConnect in particular faces potential regulatory challenges in Norway.

But what is clear is that there is an increasingly good chance of Norway having an energy connection to the UK by around the beginning of the next decade.
And that is potentially very significant news for renewable energy on both sides of the North Sea. The UK in particular is rushing headlong towards a situation where it may soon be taking on board very large amounts of intermittent, ocean-based power.

Yet it currently lacks any significant energy storage capacity with which to hang on to any excess. The easiest and most commonly used way to store large amounts of surplus renewable power is to use it to pump water into dams and retrieve it later in the form of hydro energy.

Pumped hydro currently accounts for about 90% of all energy storage in the world but in the UK there is hardly enough to store the surfeit of power likely to come off the North Sea on a windy night in a few years’ time. With a NorthConnect or a HVDC Norway-UK in place, however, the UK would have the option of shipping any energy it could not use over to Scandinavia.

Of course, it is unlikely that Norway would have any more need for large amounts of energy on a windy night than the UK might. But sending power to Scandinavia raises two interesting prospects. The first is that it could then be forwarded on to other parts of the continent, such as Germany, which may indeed have increased power requirements. The Nordic countries already have their sights set on improving their energy export capabilities.

In addition to the two potential links to the UK, Norway is planning to build a 1,400MW interconnector with Germany by 2018, according to reports. And a second, related option is that excess renewable power from the UK, or even Germany for that matter, gets bought up cheaply by Norway and is stored in Scandinavian pumped hydro facilities, to be re-sold later on. Unlike the UK or Germany, the Nordic countries have ample pumped hydro potential.

They already get more than half their electricity from hydro, which is generally credited with allowing them to enjoy lower power prices than gas-guzzling counterparts elsewhere in Europe. Ilesh Patel, a partner at the energy consultancy firm Baringa, says the creation of power links with Norway could in theory be seen as a way of giving European marine renewable energy generators a battery pack.

However, he adds, the industry needs to be aware that this form of storage will only be an option when the financial incentives are properly aligned on either side of the interconnector. “Is an interconnector to Norway an additional form of storage? The answer is yes,” he says. “Will that work all the time? It depends on the economies of arbitrage. You can only store power in Norway’s reservoirs when there’s an economic profit to be had by doing so.

“You might make that bet if you thought you might need that power back next week, but it carries a risk with it.”

Clearly, then, Scandinavia’s pumped hydro potential will not work for everyone all of the time. But until Europe gets a proper handle on the increasingly serious issue of energy storage, as far as renewable energy suppliers are concerned the pumped hydro option is probably going to be a whole lot better than nothing.

Opinion: Britain must rule the waves

This article was previously published in Marine Renewable Energy.

S&C Electric, a company that integrates electricity storage units into the grid for utilities, last October called for changes in the UK electricity market to improve conditions for energy storage.

Speaking to Reuters, Andrew Jones, Managing Director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, stated that the addition of energy storage as a valued asset in the UK’s energy infrastructure would allow return of investment for renewable energy companies, some of whom have also been complaining about the lack of investment in their own industry.

And last July the House of Commons select committee on Energy and Climate Change called for a greater focus on energy storage and demand-response measures after reviewing a draft Energy Bill. The ambitious Electricity Market Reform Bill (EMR) had been drafted to help encourage the GBP£110 billion (USD$176 billion) investment the administration says is needed to revamp the country’s energy infrastructure.

Observers in the renewable energy market will no doubt share the concerns voiced by Jones and the MPs on the select committee. Because thanks to the EMR, the UK is looking to integrate massive amounts of marine renewable energy onto the grid, making some form of energy storage practically indispensible… yet energy storage is barely on the map.

In 2011, a report by the UK Energy Research Partnership said energy storage “can help manage the large-scale deployment of intermittent generation” such as will result from current offshore wind (and later wave and tidal) build-outs. But it noted that: “the role for energy storage is poorly described in many pathways to a low-carbon economy”. Current market conditions and regulation, it added, are unlikely to encourage new energy storage technologies.

Among the recommendations in the report was the suggestion that the UK government should be clearer about its long-term energy policy, in order to clarify the role of storage and set the level of innovation needed to fulfill that role. It also called for a strategic analysis of energy storage technologies to coordinate support from innovation funders, including ‘whole system and subsystem’ modelling to look at all options.

Bodies such as the Technology Strategy Board, Ofgem and DECC should target energy storage as a priority, and the EMR should recognise its benefits explicitly. Finally, the energy storage stakeholder community “should establish a strategic roadmap for energy storage in the UK to introduce a coherent approach across the sector,” said the report.

Such calls are vitally important, but risk being drowned out in the general noise being created around marine renewable energy in the UK. With the world’s biggest offshore wind industry, and a leading position in wave and tidal technologies, the UK’s energy view is firmly focused out over the sea, with perhaps little consideration to what will happen when power comes ashore.

However, let us not forget that just as Britain gets stuck into round 3 of its offshore wind adventure, and steps up developments in wave and tidal power generation, the country is committed to switching off old coal-powered stations. Meanwhile, its nuclear renaissance appears to have hit a roadblock. So where is the country’s base-load power going to come from?

In places such as Europe, there is hope that intermittent renewable power can be integrated effectively into the grid by sharing connections across a wide enough area. The wind may not always blow, goes the thinking, but it is always blowing somewhere; so if you can ship power across a large enough area then you might just get by.

Indeed, Gregor Czisch, a researcher who has studied renewable energy at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, believes that wind power alone could power the whole of Europe if the grid connections are right. The UK is an island, though. And although the number and size of interconnectors with Europe is being increased, it is not yet certain the country could rely on energy swaps alone to integrate the level of renewable power it is planning to have.

Energy storage could therefore represent an important resource for the country. But it is not something the UK is currently excelling at. Take pumped hydro, for example. This is by far the most widely used form of energy storage, accounting for around 90 per cent of the industry’s market worldwide. It is also fairly easy to implement; just pump water back into a hydro-power dam in times of power excess. Yet the UK barely has a couple of sites where this happens.

Perhaps it is unfair to criticise the UK on this point, since pumped hydro is only suitable for easy-to-dam locations and the British landscape many not easily support it. Another option, then, would be to use electric vehicle (EV) batteries as a power sink. Here again, though, the UK’s plans for EV take-up do not seem to be expressly related to renewable energy penetration, and less so in terms of EV’s energy storage capability.

There are other options, ranging from building massive battery banks to compressed air energy storage, which the US Pacific Gas and Electric Company has said it is looking into. The UK is not exactly leading research into these alternative areas, though, or at least not on the scale you might expect given its marine renewable energy ambitions. The recent calls for increased interest in energy storage indicate that this might change.

As the British Hydropower Association notes: “Despite current electricity market mechanisms challenges, such as the absence of reward for capacity, which has historically led to some mothballing, the role of pumped storage is becoming more critical looking forward.”

The energy industry will want that policy makers to take heed… before wind, wave and tidal plants start bringing power on shore in earnest.

EESTor’s supercapacitor back from dead?

There are some energy storage sagas that never seem to end; take the A123 debacle, for instance. Another that popped back into the news is EESTor’s ongoing quest for the energy storage solution to rule them all. Like Tyler Hamilton, who wrote this excellent article on the whole story to date, we noticed a press release from the Texan company last week.

Like him, too, we have no idea if EEStor’s amazing claims that it has tripled its original energy density target, reaching 1,000 watt-hours per kilogram, could be true or not. And like him, we are keeping our fingers crossed.

Energy storage gets military funding, and that’s a good thing

In recent posts, we’ve looked at some of the many ways in which the US military is funding energy storage, directly and otherwise. It’s hardly a secret that the Pentagon has nurtured many innovations through their difficult formative years. Everything from aviation to computers to the internet have benefited from military research and funding. It only seems right that energy storage, a technology that is so vital to the future of energy generation and human welfare, gets a slice of the cake, too.