Energy storage and the Ukrainian gas affair

The role of energy storage in European energy security policy has moved to the fore with the dispute between Russia and Ukraine over gas. Photo: Gazprom

The role of energy storage in European energy security policy has moved to the fore as Russia cuts off gas supplies to Ukraine. Photo: Gazprom

Storage’s role in securing energy supplies looks likely to come more to the fore following events in Ukraine this week.

On Monday the territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia took an energy-related twist as Russia’s Gazprom switched off gas supplies to the Ukrainians, demanding repayment of accumulated debts of USD$4.458bn.

And as Energy Storage Report went to press reports were coming in of a suspected terrorist attack on a Ukrainian pipeline carrying Russian gas to Europe. European supplies would not be compromised, according to sources in Ukraine.

However, the developments seem certain to further raise already heightened European concerns over the security of energy supplies from outside the Union, and particularly the supply of gas from as pugnacious a nation as Russia.

About 15% of the gas consumed in the European Union (EU) comes from Russia via Ukraine, according to Bloomberg. That supply has already been compromised by spats between the two Eastern bloc nations in 2006 and 2009.

Sidestepping similar situations

Little surprise, then, that EU energy minister Gunther Oettinger is mediating between the two on this occasion.

Whatever the outcome of negotiations, there is little doubt EU policy makers will now be looking even harder at ways to sidestep similar situations in future.

A European Commission (EC) staff working document on energy security, updated on Monday, observes that “current events on the EU’s Eastern border have raised concerns regarding both the continuity of energy supplies and regarding the price of energy.

“This has provoked apprehension regarding short-term access to energy, in particular access to affordable gas supplies in the coming months. It has also raised questions about the adequacy of the measures taken for the medium term.”

The good news for those worried about security of supply is that overall energy demand has been falling across the EU in recent years, and is now 8% below its 2006 peak.

Import dependency rising

The bad news is that gas’s share has risen, from 20% in the mid-1990s to 23% now, and energy import dependency has risen by 10% in the last 20 years as European oil, gas and coal reserves have run short.

In the meantime, though, the share of renewable energy has more than doubled. It now accounts for around 11% of total consumption.

“Since 2006, the increasing share of renewables, as well as the reduction of overall demand, seems to have contributed to a stabilisation of import dependency,” claims the EC staff working document.

Much of this renewable growth, of course, is from the addition of intermittent solar and wind energy sources, whose output currently has to be used as and when produced. Could energy storage help keep some of this power in reserve to ensure security of supply?

The EU doesn’t seem too convinced, for now at least. While ‘storage’ is the most important of the supply measures proposed in EU member state preventive action plans, in this context it relates almost entirely to natural gas stores.

Producing hydrogen from renewables

This is hardly surprising given the predominance of natural gas in today’s European energy mix. And at least the working document authors pay fleeting attention to the potential of energy storage technologies applied to renewable energy.

Among these, says the paper: “Producing hydrogen using electricity generated from renewables, and using fuel cells that convert it back into electricity more efficiently than conventional technologies, can provide a solution.”

The authors note that the EU’s Horizon 2020 Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking aims to boost the efficiency of hydrogen production from water electrolysis, while reducing capital and operational costs, to make it a competitive storage medium.

In addition, the report highlights 15 or so electrical storage plants being developed as projects of common interest in the EU.

These are seen as forming part of wider moves to improve the functioning of the EU’s internal energy market, along with high voltage lines, substations, phase-shift transformers and so on.

The value for energy security

Unsurprisingly, parties related to these other energy infrastructure developments are keen to highlight their value for energy security in the wake of events in Ukraine.

Ana Aguado, chief executive of Friends of the Supergrid, which advocates a pan-European high-voltage transmission network, says: “This kind of things helps, because you have to focus on security of supply.”

Countries in many other regions, meanwhile, will be watching closely to see how Europe solves its energy security conundrum, since few nations can claim to be fully self-sufficient when it comes to power reserves.

Energy storage is already being modestly touted as part of a possible solution in future. Perhaps it is time for the industry to start making more noise about the contribution it could make.

Written by Jason Deign

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