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Energy storage needed in UK to offset cost of turning off wind turbines

The UK needs to invest in energy storage technology in order to alleviate financial burdens brought upon on consumers when wind farm operators turn off their turbines.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) warns in a report published today that consumers will continue to pay increasing bills for constraint payments from the National Grid – essentially a payment to generators to turn off their wind turbines - unless the government works with energy companies and industry to develop a road map for the development, demonstration and deployment of energy storage technologies.

Recent figures from the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) claim that £8.7m in constraint payments were made to wind farms in March, part of the £13,749,814 already paid out this year. In 2013, wind farms received £32,707,351. 

Under existing market arrangements, if an energy company generating electricity is unable to supply its power to the grid because it is not required it is entitled to constraint payments.

In its new report Energy Storage: The missing link in the UK’s energy commitments, IMechE highlights energy storage technologies such as those based on Cryogenics (or so-called liquid air), flywheels, pumped heat and graphene super-capacitors as potential ways the UK can start making the best use of its renewable energy.

In a statement, Dr Tim Fox, head of Energy and Environment at IMechE said: ‘We know that energy bills are going to rise in future, but unless we invest in energy storage technology these constraint payments are set to become an unnecessary additional cost for the consumer.

’The issue of constraint payments has become a recurring concern of consumers, as they are effectively funding the non-supply of electricity from a range of generation technologies, and the fact that millions are currently handed out to wind farms has highlighted a potential challenge for the future.

‘At the moment constraint payments for renewable based electricity generation makes up a relatively small proportion of the total, but as the installed capacity of these technologies increases in the future the issue of such payments will likely become of growing public concern. Virtually any form of energy storage could help alleviate this problem, by allowing surplus generation from intermittent renewable sources to be stored by power providers until needed for use at a different time when demand exists.

‘But the need is not just for electricity generation, which only makes up around 26 per cent of UK energy demand, we also require storage for the bigger demands for heat and transport as they transition to renewable sources.

‘The intermittency challenge of renewable sources arises from the fact that the wind does not always blow, the sun does not always shine and the waves are not always in motion at times when consumers demand electricity. Equally, the converse is also true, in that consumer demand for power can be low when renewable energy sources are highly active.’

On one day in August 2013, £1.84m was paid to operators of 28 wind-farms in Scotland to turn off their turbines. Between 2011 and 2012, constraint payments from National Grid to wind farm operators totalled more than £34m, which represented just over 10 per cent of the total paid to all electricity generators in UK, despite wind accounting for less than five per cent of energy production.

In the same period, more than £340m was paid in constraint payments to all UK electricity generators, amounting to approximately £13 per household.

This issue – dubbed ‘wrong time’ electricity generation - leads to technical challenges in balancing the UK’s energy needs, leading IMechE to recommend the following:

  • Government needs to focus on heat and transport, as well as electricity. It is well understood that security of supply is crucial and that decarbonisation of the UK energy system desirable, but in contrast to past thinking it should not be confined to simply having sufficient electricity generating capacity to ‘keep the lights on’
  • Government must recognise that energy storage cannot be incentivised by conventional market mechanisms. It is unlikely that the nation’s long-term decarbonisation objectives will be met without significant deployment of energy storage capability, yet there are no firm plans in the UK that commit to significant levels of energy storage
  • The UK must reject its obsession with ‘cheapness’ in the energy sector. Despite current concern over rapidly increasing energy costs, and the reactive political promises that are unlikely to be fulfilled, it is evident that whatever form of energy is used in the UK, costs will have to continue to rise into the future.



Readers' comments (22)

  • Luckily, projects such as EVEREST are addressing exactly this - energy storage, linked with renewable generation and transport in the form of electric cars!

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  • Is the issue about overall energy production or local energy production surplus which exceeds the capacity of the grid to export the power? If it is the latter then upgrading the grid should be an option.

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  • I'm sure a market incentive could be introduced somewhere:

    Stipulate a minimum renewable percentage and impose fines for mistmatches between supply and demand.

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  • Check out the Energy Storage Centre for Doctoral Training for research and training in this sector:

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  • Can you imagine Tesco charging you for beans the one week that you dont want any beans.
    We pay plenty for their product when we do want it, a bit cheeky charging us for when we dont want it.
    The wind turbine operators offer an intermittent (subsidised) service and want to charge us for the ocasional time when it is not needed; and it would in probability not be available anyway.

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  • You mentioned pumped heat..... How did that happen?

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  • Storing potential electrical energy is high cost with diminishing returns in round trip efficiency.

    Better to use other storage vectors that are lower cost first in an energy systems approach, then use higher cost but valuable electrical storage with short to long term storage capacities and availabilities as needed eg lower efficiency but easily stored renewable power to gas probably last port of call before pumped hydro storage, compressed air, cryogenic heat engines, chemical batteries, hydrogen injection in gas grid, etc.

    This is what Denmark is doing storing excess renewable energy to grid demand in large low cost heat stores (driven by MW heat pumps on the HV grid to minimise losses) for low temperature district heating. There is sufficient demand for heating in the UK (close to 50% of energy demand is for heat) and lots of difficult to insulate heritage buildings. Thats not to say we should not insulate and thermally upgrade our buildings as well including for example low temperature emitters oversized radiant radiaters, floor or wall heating (Denmark is doing both), etc.

    see 4th generation District Heating

    Wind energy is a fuel $aver, and constructing an energy system around variable or cycling (such as tidal lagoon) renewables is not an insurmountable problem as indicated by many reports from all round the world and as in the recent Royal Academy of Engineering report ;

    The only problem are existing vested interests and supine politicians. The grid needs restructuring for the coming renewable energy revolution. We certainly dont need over complicated, high cost, unflexible and high risk nuclear (NB Labour is no better than the Conservatives, and the Libdems have taken the sucker bait). In fact nuclear will block investment in renewables after 2020, locking the UK into the high cost nuclear cycle (and helping out $truggling EDF/France).

    When you have variable renewable base load generation is redundant, you need quick reacting infill such as allready existing gas fired CCGT and OCT. It will be relatively low cost with occasional use (give them capacity payments if needed or just buy them). The ramp up and down rates are similar to existing rates and extra maintainace costs are minimal. With some CO2 capture and use of biomass + coal you can even have low to neutral CO2 BECCS biogenic carbon capture and storage (use). CO2 then has an economic value.

    Local community owned and operated renewable energy has so much to offer ... certainly a solid return on investment, better than bank interest!

    Of course we can easily use 30% less energy with efficiency, normally with a quick return on investment!

    We will also need attitudinal change. Whether we like it or not it will be forced on us by planet earth!

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  • Don't forget that in the fullness of time electric vehicles will provide a massive energy storage capacity when the 30 million cars in the UK and the billion or so worldwide are all electric powered.

    See Prof David MacKay's "Sustainable energy - without the hot air" - pages 194 to 195. This 350 plus page book is available free to download at

    Why not subsidise the conversion of existing cars to electric power using some of the £170 million that is forecast to remain unspent by 2015 of the £400 million Government incentive of £5000 off the price of new EVs?

    Perhaps people living closest to wind farms could be given a larger subsidy so that the population of EVs local to the wind turbines and hence the local battery storage capacity increases more rapidly

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  • One more reason for scrapping the useless wind farms and focus on using the reliable fuels: coal,gas and nuclear

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  • The problem with energy storage for renewable energy is that in many cases, the peak electrical demand occurs in a different season from the peak output from renewables. For instance, in December in Germany solar and wind power produced a tiny amount of power during a week of high demand. Solar output is highest in the middle of summer so several months of energy storage would be needed.

    Everybody talks about electric car batteries and hydro pumped storage both of which can last for only a few hours. Hydro pumped storage is quite expensive and, as soon as you start considering the cycling cost on the car batteries, using them to provide storage is very expensive.

    But none of this alters the fact that there is no technology available – or even on the horizon – that will provide low-cost efficient long term storage. Until this problem is solved there is absolutely no point in recommending that we impose large quantities of extremely expensive wind and solar power on our power systems.

    And do not forget that the world has not warmed for the last 17 years. This proves that man-made carbon dioxide does not cause dangerous global warming. So there is no need for heavily subsidised wind and solar power anyway.

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