We need to talk about batteries and their potential to save the planet

On 7 June, the National Grid reported that renewable sources provided 50.7% of the UK’s energy needs; a watershed moment for the UK’s energy generation.

If this trajectory continues, what does it mean for the wider energy infrastructure? With so much power potentially available, how can we store this until we need it? The day that renewables delivered half of our energy needs was particularly sunny and windy – something we can’t always rely upon. As we race to develop more electric vehicles, alongside low-cost renewable-energy sources in business and at home, the question is therefore whether we have the energy-storage infrastructure to collect and deliver this resource when we need it.

The US Energy Department is already funding 75 projects with the aim of developing new energy-storage systems. Closer to home, the UK government established the Faraday Challenge in July; part of its four-year investment in developing new battery technologies for electric cars, and one section of its overall Industrial Strategy.

“By any scale, the Faraday Challenge is a game-changing investment in the UK and will make people around the globe take notice of what the UK is doing in terms of battery development for the automotive sector,” said Dr Ruth McKernan, chief executive of Innovate UK, alongside the launch of the initiative.

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(Above: The all-electric Nissan Leaf)

“The single most important technological breakthrough likely to happen over the period to 2030”

The effects of new battery technology are likely to ripple outside of the bounds of the automotive industry. After interviewing a number of key members in the energy sector, Energy UK’s “Pathways for the GB Electricity Sector to 2030” report concluded that: “Many agreed with the sense that the energy sector is about to go through the same sort of technology-led revolution that has been witnessed in telecommunications and banking in recent years.

“Electricity storage is widely regarded to be the single most important technological breakthrough likely to happen over the period to 2030 and a complete ‘game changer’ in the way that the power system operates.”

Currently, the UK’s electricity network is designed around large-power-station generation that is then distributed. Battery storage presents the opportunity for a more decentralised approach, and will need a network to be developed that can easily switch between energy sources to deliver unbroken power to users. Keeping the lights on isn’t simply a matter of building massive battery storage facilities, then, although these are beginning to appear on UK shores.

Time-shifting energy

The hope is that with the cost of generating our own power falling, we can take more control of our own energy generation and storage. With new low-cost PV (photovoltaic) installation kits coming onto the market, there’s scope for us to not only be energy consumers, but energy generators as well. It’s been possible for over a decade for anyone to install their own PV system, but today the cost of installation has fallen to its lowest point, with new battery technology spawning domestic systems such as the Tesla Powerwall and the Solarwatt MyReserve.

“Everyone will have a couple of batteries,” said Pol Spronck, international sales manager for Solarwatt. “People with surplus electricity will share with neighbours and the community, so if you go on holidays you can swap with other people. Blockchain technology will make it possible and manageable to exchange electricity in a small-grid setup.”

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(Above: Solarwatt’s MyReserve)

The wider energy market, however, will see focus on the centralised generation of power and how this will be stored. E.ON has completed the installation and grid connection of its 10MW battery at the Blackburn Meadows biomass plant near Sheffield – a new energy-storage project that will help keep power supplies stable and support the range of power-generation sources feeding into the UK’s National Grid.

“Using battery storage is a significant development for managing the National Grid,” commented Leon Walker, commercial development manager at the National Grid, during the plant’s launch. “It’s an ultra-fast way of keeping electricity supply and demand balanced. Over four years, we estimate that this service will save the system operator around £200 million.”

There are ultimately many different forms of energy storage that could be considered, including pumped hydro, compressed air energy and liquid air energy storage. All of these have very low energy stored on investment, meaning the balance between the energy embodied in the battery and the amount of energy stored during its lifetime indicates low levels of sustainability.

“What’s missing are mechanisms to monetise the value that storage generates”

“There’s no need for new energy storage technologies, as many options already exist,” said Fernando Morales, lead business analyst at Highview Power. “What’s missing are mechanisms to monetise the value that storage generates. Deploying storage at the scale needed to store the quantities of energy needed requires significant investment and investors require revenue certainty.”

Dr Alastair Martin, founder of Flexitricity, agreed that simply focusing on storage technologies isn’t enough: “Battery manufacturers have done an amazing job at slashing costs and improving battery lifetimes. We now need progress in economic long-duration storage, but that is as much of a task for policy and regulation as it is for technologists.”

Power for a rainy day

Advanced battery technology is progressing, driven (excuse the pun) by the burgeoning electric and hybrid vehicle sector. The future looks to be one where renewable energy production – the US’s stance on fossil fuel notwithstanding – becomes the norm, with efficient domestic micro-generation, and all homes coming equipped with their own battery storage.

As renewable energy generation continues to grow, the capacity in the marketplace is also expanding. Once dynamic pricing becomes commonplace, and renewables with their battery partners can deliver more than the energy requirements of the country, lower overall energy prices should follow. Spikes in energy prices when there is no wind, or the sun isn’t shining, are evened out, as battery storage can be switched on at will.

Set against these developments, moves to reinstate a focus on fossil-fuel energy production, as the Trump administration seem to be doing, are naive in the extreme. “Most countries around the world have renewables programmes of some form, and so the general direction is very much in towards clean power, although that is not to say that every country is going fully down that route,” said Frank Gordon, policy manager at REA.

“When you look at some of the US’s major competitor economies, however – such as China, the EU and India – they all have major renewable energy ambitions. The US is out of line in relation to their major peers.”

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(Above: E.ON’s 10 megawatt lithium-ion battery at Blackburn Meadows)

So, when we consider our society’s insatiable need for power, who is driving the development of renewable energy and battery storage? The answer is consumers. Indeed, the signs suggest homeowners are already pushing these shifts in the industry. A recent report by Eaton talks about a number of tipping points in the energy business.

“Tipping point 3 is when rooftop PV systems become cheaper than buying energy from the grid via a retailer,” the report read. “Much of Europe has crossed this economic tipping point, and additions will in future be driven by consumer adoption, local regulatory frameworks and availability of rooftops.”

“The way in which energy is generated, distributed and consumed is changing forever”

Stephen Irish, founder of Hyperdrive Innovation, chimed with this outlook: “We’ve now entered a completely new era, where the way in which energy is generated, distributed and consumed is changing forever. There are some significant challenges, given the ageing distribution network, but also huge opportunities for making big steps forward.”

What has become clear over the past few years is that calculating how we generate and store energy needs a multifaceted approach. As renewables continue their rise to become the dominant forms of energy generation, everyone can play their part, from large battery farms like the one in Blackburn Meadows to new batteries installed in our homes and garages.tesla-powerwall2-indoors

(Above: The Powerwall 2 from Tesla)

“On the demand side, we predict significant growth in electric vehicles (EVs), and also behind the meter battery storage,” said Patrick Caiger-Smith, CEO of Cambridge-based home-energy firm GEO. “For example, a recent survey we conducted of 150 industry people showed that 72% are planning to buy an EV as their next car. Looking at home batteries, 29% are considering buying one which, given the early stage of the market, is a strong leading measure.”

The feed-in tariff for PV has now fallen from 43.3p to a low of 4p per kilowatt hour. The practical upshot is that it’s now cheaper to use the electricity you generate at home than sell it back to the National Grid. And as PV installation costs have also fallen, we can all play our part in the future of our own energy generation, storage and consumption.

Renewable power generation is becoming commonplace as the world transitions to low-carbon production. A more intelligent approach to how we create, store and use energy is developing, as new technologies democratise the whole energy environment. It’s a vision where we can all take more control of how we generate, as well as consume, power.

Lead image: Tesla’s Powerpack

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