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High voltage, low priority

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.

Readers' comments (15)

  • The most significant and understated reason for developing traction batteries for cars is to have "a million" batteries plugged in to re-charge every night.... e.g. the Nissan Leaf. When you work out the numbers for 5 years time I think you'll appreciate that these cars will be a significant energy storage to store the overnight generation that used to be used by industry... ("Where did that go?" - you may ask). Dinorwic Power station (and others in Wales and Scotland) only balance about 1 nuclear power station's overnight load - we haven't the mountains for much more.

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  • The major problem has always been investment, and the shortsighted views of Government who generally gravitate more towards populist issues. In addition we have the apathy of the mass public towards engineering, and a lack of understanding of what we do and provide for them.

    Until the lights start to go out, the taps run dry, and people are affected, the public will not notice as they take it all for granted. Publicity is the key, especially making Governments sit and take notice of the problems as well as the general public. If and when this happens we may well alleviate the future issues we as engineers see, and funding may become available to deal with the issue before it reaches crisis point.

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  • Lets look at some simple facts.
    1. the coldest days are the times of highest grid demand
    2. The coldest days have stable high pressure and very little wind.
    3. The contribution from wind turbines is therefore almost nil in periods of highest demand.

    The result of this is that, once you have a significant proportion of generation from wind, you will need large scale storage facilities to match supply to demand. Fail to do this and the lights go out.

    The big problem is that, not only are we not facing up to this as an issue, but that it will be fundamentally inefficient. Every time you change one form of energy into another there are losses. Yes, we could use the excess electricity to run electric motors to turn compressors to pump air into tanks but what a waste.

    It is good that this issue is, at last, out in the open but I can't see a workable solution any time soon.

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  • Hydrogen is a bit useless as an energy store unless it's made from high temperature energy sources such as nuclear MSR.

    For storage in the medium term, we should look to Norwegian pumped storage.

    The other solution is make supply and demand more flexible. If 20 million UK households had a 2KWe fuel cell generator with smart control, and a 20KWhr Electric Vehicle with smart charging, electricity storage is no longer an issue.

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  • Or we could just forget the windmills and build something that actually works instead.

    Energy storage is not an issue for nuclear, gas or coal.

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  • The grid stability is also a challenge when using wind power and we should not forget that sometimes it is too windy. However we produce electricity the efficiency is one of the key factors which will guide us to the cleanest way to do it.

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  • One of the problems with this kind of project is the investment infrastructure. Energy storage is a problem that will become significant on a 10-20 year timescale. Most investment money comes from pension funds or VC funds that have a 3-5 year time horizon (i.e. they want to get their money in and profits out within 5 years). The return period on a storage project is too long I think.

    National Power had a good stab at the storage issue with their Regenesys project, which was basically a huge rechargeable fluid electrode battery. The project was prototyped sucessfully at 10MW and was intended for use as a load levelling supply. The step up to 100MW was a financial risk too far for the company and there was no interest at all from the investment community for the reasons outlined above. The project folded never to be heard from again.

    Sad to say that investment for this type of project is unlikely until we have had significant experience of sitting in the dark!

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  • Pumped storage is a developed technology, however it has two drawbacks, capital cost and suitable sites.

    In Ireland we are developing a model which cuts capital costs in half and utilises the geology and topography of our Atlantic coast.

    Pioneered in Okinawa by J Power, seawater pumped storage can provide massive amounts of electricity storage at very reasonable capital cost.

    The first project in Ireland will have approx 100 GW/hrs of storage and a rated output of 1 GW.

    We expect to enter the planning system later this year

    More detail is available at

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  • There are many ways to generate power, and not all avenues are explored unless they have the fervour aimed at projects with the highest Government capital input.

    The Governments themselves have tunnel vision when it comes to this matter, probably swayed by big companies that only invest in something that gets them high profit margin for the least amount of capital input. Energy storage is still only in its infancy, given that it is one of those sciences that needs a large capital outlay before it becomes profitable, something any Government is unwilling to give towards. After all, they cannot get taxes off projects that may not be ready for the next ten years or so.

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  • Many years ago, when I first started work as a young engineer, I joined a major battery manufacturer and their holy grail was to design a better battery for cars - they had cars on test running around London. 35 years later I am self-employed and the test cars are still running around London, perhaps the cars are different.
    My point is that battery companies cannot demonstrate that they deserve investment. Think about the advances in cellphones and the poor battery life we get at the moment.
    If there is to be investment in energy storage, it has to be with entrepreneurs who think for a living and not with the same okd hierarchical companies where the money just soaks into the costs and nothing comes out. Being self-employed teaches you about the gross inefficiences of the big companies.

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