Storing up a future problem

Features editor

The lack of clarity over whose responsibility it is to build and operate grid-connected energy storage could hold up the establishment of this new, important part of the electricity network. Several technologies are available for deployment, but there needs to be much more discussion of how they will fit into the system, technically and financially.

We’ve written a lot about the various different types of electricity generation technologies in The Engineer, and it never fails to stir up debate. Proponents and opponents of wind, wave, tidal, nuclear and fossil-fuel generation argue back and forth, but the simple fact is that we need a mix of all types of generation technologies to balance security of supply, sustainable use of fuels and affordability.

Despite the unpredictable pronouncements of certain energy ministers, government policy has pretty much followed this idea for some years. But the energy landscape is complicated, and it’s becoming apparent that there needs to be a great deal more coordination between the energy stakeholders if we’re to have a fit-for-purpose network in the coming decades.

The part of the energy landscape that hasn’t received much attention is energy storage. It’s rarely mentioned, apart from as a stick with which to beat renewables — they won’t be reliable unless there is energy storage to counter their intermittency and, the argument goes, the technologies to store power just aren’t there.

In fact, this isn’t true. Flywheel technology is sufficiently advanced for a 20MW plant to be installed in New York State. Pumped storage has been used in the UK for many years, as anyone who’s visited the enormous ‘Electric Mountain’ facility at Dinorwig in Snowdonia will know. And technologies such as energy storage by air liquefaction are well under development.

There are two main problems, it seems. First, while the technologies exist, they tend to be expensive — extra facilities on the energy network are going to cost someone money, and it’ll inevitably end up being the people who pay the bills: that is, industry and the public. Related to that, in the UK’s fragmented, fractious, deregulated energy market, nobody seems to know exactly whose job it is to set up, operate and maintain energy storage facilities. Energy generators think it’s a network issue, therefore must be the distributors’ job. Distributors think it’s part of the energy supply landscape, and therefore it’s not their job. Nobody seems to be too keen to say definitively whose job it is, thereby landing them with the bill.

But it’s got to be someone’s job. Do we need a new sector within the energy market? Does this need government regulation? Is it part of a smart grid system; and if so, how should it be coordinated with the other elements of smart grids, such as intelligent appliances that can tailor their energy consumption to match demand and price?

Nobody seems to know, as I’ll explain further in an upcoming feature you’ll be able to read next week. And this is quite worrying, because the time when we’ll need such systems is approaching rapidly. Logically, they should be established at the same time as the generating facilities they’re supposed to support — and with large offshore wind farms being built now, that appears to be leaving a gap in the system. Organisations such as the IMechE and the Royal Academy of Engineering have called attention to this, and the Technology Strategy Board has an energy storage programme — but it could all be too little, too late. The focus needs to be as much on the place of energy storage in the market and the network as on perfecting and reducing the cost of the technology. Otherwise, there’s a risk of yet another energy muddle, and that’s the last thing we need.