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.

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