High voltage, low priority

Reporter

When it comes to electricity, all the focus is usually on ways to produce it that don’t damage the environment or climate. But there’s another issue that doesn’t get anywhere near as much attention but is going to become a vital part of our approach in dealing with carbon emissions: energy storage.

At a joint conference held by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in London yesterday, experts lined up to stress how important finding efficient ways of storing large amounts of electricity will be.

Chief scientific advisor to the business and transport ministries, Prof Brian Collins, said it would make a critical contribution to reducing emissions and meeting environmental targets.

Nick Winser, executive director of National Grid, said it was an absolutely critical part of the picture and the centrepiece to solving the problem of matching peak demand and supply, particularly as we move to more intermittent sources of electricity such as wind.

One of the key problems with wind turbines is that they can generate wildly different amounts of power at different times, and without a way of storing the electricity at peak output times, there’s no way of matching it up with the daily rise and fall in demand.

Without storage to regulate wind generation, we’ll need more nuclear or fossil-fuel power stations to meet peak demand, reducing the output when less energy is needed.

But, as Winser pointed out, energy storage is also perhaps the most immature energy technology and least understood.

Storage receives just 2.3 per cent of UK research funding, putting it near the very bottom of priorities and way below the top earners like solar, which receives 10.7 per cent of funding.

The conference highlighted a wide variety of ideas and research projects, from using electric vehicle batteries to store electricity overnight to power stations that utilise compressed air or liquid nitrogen.

One solution, outlined by Andrew Haslett, director of strategy development for the public-private partnership the Energy Technologies Institute, is to use hydrogen generated from carbon capture-storage (CCS) facilities at coal gasification plants.

By 2050, this could provide 1600GWh worth of cheap storage, he said, by pumping hydrogen into appropriate underground deposits that can then be turned back into electricity. The main problem is adapting natural gas turbines into hydrogen ones to release the energy.

But for all these ideas, the UK has little existing storage infrastructure, apart from the some pumped water storage plants in Wales, and few concrete plans to expand it.

David McKay, chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), said: ‘Current capacity is nowhere near enough to cope with demand and supply fluctuations in the future.’

Part of the problem seems to be that no one has taken ownership of the issue. Winser said National Grid had no plans to invest in storage infrastructure and that the current model relied on market operators to do the work. The company inherited the Welsh water storage plants in the 1990s but were encouraged by the government to sell them.

From the utility firms’ perspectives, electricity storage probably doesn’t yet provide the economic incentive to be worth investing millions in developing early-stage technology.

Perhaps they don’t want demand and supply to ever truly be matched in order to keep prices high? It definitely seems unlikely they’d want to have to pay for facilities to store their electricity because they’ve got more than they can sell.

So a good place to start would be with an increase in research and development for these technologies. If more university projects can be spun out then new companies could fill the much-needed role of builders of our storage infrastructure, as a few have already begun attempting to do.

Certainly the RAE, which plans to release a report on the topic later this year, should be applauded for taking the initiative and joining forces with another leading nation in the energy field. Hopefully we’ll now begin to see the focus from industry this area deserves.