Unlocking the energy transition
Electricity storage can be transformational for the UK's homes and businesses, but there is work to do to unlock its potential, writes Simon Innis.
25th August 2017 by Networks
There’s been more and more media and industry discussion about electricity storage and associated technologies like electric vehicles.
Leading a business involved with generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure across the UK and Ireland, I know that there are some fantastic technologies being developed in the sector.
“Without a coordinated plan for upgrading the UK’s energy system, I’m not sure it’s possible for the UK to deploy storage at scale.”
But by the same token, the biggest reservation I have is whether the potential offered by electricity storage can be realised quickly enough to unlock the wider energy transition.
As I see it, there remain two major barriers: the technical challenge, and the leadership challenge.
Firstly, a longstanding problem for the UK’s energy sector is how to ensure the electricity grid keeps pace with the connection of increasing intermittent generation, the closure of aging power stations, and the expectation that smart, connected technologies and demand management solutions will need to be incorporated into the system.
For me, the answer is to make sure that smart, interconnected solutions are deployed from the ground up. Grid infrastructure needs to be integrated with newly-connected electricity storage assets, and storage needs to work alongside progress on energy efficiency, intermittent and embedded generation assets, and all the benefits of Industry 4.0.
Without a coordinated plan for upgrading the UK’s energy system, I’m not sure it’s possible for the UK to deploy storage at scale.
Secondly, the UK’s regulatory system was designed to deliver large-scale, baseload generation. That’s a big problem, because what’s needed as soon as possible is an energy system that’s smart, flexible, and captures all of the benefits available from new technologies for consumers and businesses.
I think it’s now generally accepted that electricity storage can’t be treated in the same way as generating assets and more “traditional” methods of managing power. We’re starting to see some progress on creating a more favourable regulatory framework, catching-up with the technology and market interest. However, there is still work to do, and it’s important that we get it right.
The bottom line is that we must find the right way of regulating electricity storage as soon as we can, as part of a coordinated energy policy, otherwise it’s difficult to see how faster deployment can be achieved.
As far as storage technology itself goes, the UK is leading the charge. Researchers are working on finding new ways of creating batteries with enhanced capabilities and at lower cost, and the level of investment we’re seeing could transform the landscape for both domestic consumers and industry.
Going by conversations with my customers, it’s clear that there is an appetite within industry for better energy management. Indeed, many of the high street’s household names are already investing in renewables and energy management technologies – just look at household names like Google, Tesco, Burberry and Carlsberg. We’re also seeing business and universities creating their own micro-grids, where small-scale generating assets are paired with smart infrastructure, advanced software solutions and storage capability.
I’d argue that the pace at which storage technologies are being developed, combined with this hunger for a better energy system, means the UK should move more quickly to prepare the ground for greater deployment of electricity storage, the key to unlocking the energy transition.
The truth is that Britain is in a very strong position to take advantage of the electricity storage revolution. Our credentials on the engineering services needed – like installation, design, services and manufacturing – are first-rate. There are a huge number of opportunities for UK companies, from design and construction to front-end engineering and maintenance.
But that can only come if the two major barriers to scaled-up deployment are overcome.
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