With the UK aiming to reach net zero by 2050, Peter Kavanagh, CEO at Harmony Energy, highlights the opportunities presented by energy storage facilities to balance the ebbs and flows of nature, and make renewable energy more reliable.
Renewable energy is fantastic. It comes from natural sources that will never run out. It does not generate greenhouse gas emissions or create air pollution. Wind and solar are the cheapest sources of new electricity – solar energy, for example, is currently a ninth of the cost of gas. And, as an island, the UK is blessed with copious supplies of wind and daylight!
If we harness this natural power at our disposal, we will be able to drive down costs and increase our national energy security, while working towards a clean energy future.
Balancing the flow
However, until recently we did not have a cost-effective way to store the surplus energy generated by solar and wind power. This creates a particular problem because the consistency of supply is at the mercy of the unpredictable British weather.
Imagine a wild and windy night in the North Sea, with offshore turbines spinning fast and generating lots of electrical energy while the UK is asleep and not using electricity. At the moment, this surplus energy creates a problem and the National Grid has to ask wind farms to shut down and compensate them for doing so. As well as being expensive, this is clearly a huge waste of precious energy.
The solution? Let the energy flow down the lines into storage systems, where it can be used when demand for electricity is high. If a stormy night is followed by a still, cloudy day, having a buffer of energy to use when the network needs it most is invaluable.
Until recently, the technology was not readily available to do this at a meaningful scale. But now battery energy storage systems are enabling us to balance the flow of renewable energy to the National Grid at scale.
Setting store by batteries
The UK is leading the way in using lithium-ion batteries – the same technology that powers your mobile phone and laptop – for large-scale energy storage.
Surplus electrical energy flows into the batteries from renewable sources, where it is stored until needed. Storage systems can be sited anywhere on the electricity network, although locating them near to solar and wind farms or substations reduces cost and material usage by keeping connections short.
As well as unlocking the full potential of renewable energy, battery energy storage systems provide valuable frequency regulation services. National Grid ESO is responsible for keeping the system frequency at 50 Hz, with a statutory limit of 0.5 Hz above or below this value. If it fluctuates too much, UK households and businesses experience blackouts. Where there is the threat of this happening – for example, if a large power plant suddenly goes offline – the batteries are the fastest responding technology on the network and can step in within milliseconds to provide the required frequency adjustment and prevent a power cut.
Environment and safety
When people hear that there is a proposal for a battery energy storage system to be constructed near their community, they invariably have two chief concerns – impact on the environment and safety.
From the environmental perspective, it is vital to see battery energy storage as part of the big picture. It is widely recognised that we need to maximise the potential of our renewable energy supplies if the UK is to reach net zero by 2050. Without a cost-effective system for storing surplus energy from renewable sources and releasing it when needed, this won’t be achievable. Battery storage is a key part of the UK’s plan for creating a sustainable energy network.
As you would expect with a renewable technology, battery energy storage sites are designed to minimise impact on the landscape. At Harmony Energy, we ensure sites are well screened, planting acres of native deciduous trees and shrubs, creating ponds. In some cases, there is a biodiversity net gain of over 100 per cent. We also ensure technology is recycled at the end of life.
From the safety perspective, it is clear that we would not be able to finance and insure these developments if they were not safe.
Tesla – which manufactures the technology we use – has recorded just two fires in thousands of battery installations. Both of these were minor incidents, with no injuries or toxic emissions, and involved old technology that predated today’s systems. We have been operating large-scale sites for over two years now and have experienced no issues. Tesla monitors the battery packs 24/7 and if it observed any slight increase in temperature the system would be shut down immediately.
A clean energy future
In summary, energy storage systems may not be as high profile as solar and wind farms, but they are key to supporting a sustainable energy network and creating a clean energy future.
The National Grid has recently announced that the UK needs over ten times the amount of energy storage currently on the network by 2030. The technology is available and it is safe and reliable. Companies like ours are ready to build the sites without subsidy, at no cost to the tax payer. Now we need the social and political will to move ahead with developments as quickly as possible.
This is a massive opportunity for the UK in terms of energy security, reducing energy prices, and creating significant employment opportunities. Solar and wind farms in combination with energy storage systems have the capacity to ensure we have secure, affordable energy supplies. It is time to work together to make renewable reliable and embrace the vision of a clean energy future.