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.

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