When energy professionals discuss electricity generation today, the topic of energy storage is almost guaranteed to be introduced. This is because energy storage has the potential to transform the sector.
All power systems feature a pattern of peaks and troughs in demand. Balancing that variation is a continual task for grid operators and this task gets harder, the more intermittent and unpredictable generation there is in the system. Most renewable energy sources fall in this category and for that reason, they alone cannot always be relied upon to meet our power needs, meaning that for now we have to rely on fossil fuel generation to bridge the gaps. Conversely, when renewables are fully available, they sometimes have to be curtailed to avoid oversupply, meaning that potential low cost, carbon-free electricity production goes to waste.
We clearly need to find a better way to manage our use of renewables. Not only to ensure we maximise the potential for energy produced by new and emerging technologies, but also meet the ambitious carbon targets set during COP21.
Two elements should be considered here – improving our storage technology (including interconnectors) and getting smarter with our grids. If we can find a solution to the storage enigma, renewable energy could be used to its full potential more regularly – no more wind turbines standing still or being switched off because of grid constraints and no more fossil fuel plants being built for just occasional use. We will save on carbon emissions, decarbonise our power sector and vastly improve our chance of meeting our worldwide Paris Agreement targets.
We are at a critical and pivotal point for the industry as a whole but there is growing optimism for a variety of technologies to solve these challenges.
A viable and cost-effective energy storage mechanism holds the key for managing the fluctuations in supply and demand. The industry is, of course, already producing technologies to better store our energy and crucially, costs are coming down. On a large scale, for example, there is the Gravity Power Module (GPM). It operates on the same principles as traditional pumped hydro facilities but, because it can be built underground, it avoids many issues around siting and environmental impact.
But storing energy doesn’t always have to happen on a large scale. The move now is towards making it possible for energy consumers to create and store their own energy. Dutch Hybrid has developed Lead Crystal batteries, which allow consumers to store solar, wind or grid energy fast. The stored energy can then be used for energy around the home, day or night.
Traditional energy grids were not designed to deal with two-way power delivery and decentralised generation. Newer, smarter grids need to deal with devolved power generation, even down to consumer level, as well as spiky generation from sources like renewables.
If the grid has in-built intelligence and two-way communications capabilities, then it can react more quickly to peaks and troughs, and send messages to the system that needs to ramp up or reduce the power supply. Replacing today’s infrastructure with a complete smart grid is a vast undertaking but it holds the key to unlocking the energy cloud of tomorrow.
Whatever new technologies are developed as we work towards the COP21 targets, it is clear that energy storage should play a critical role. This will be a key theme at POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe in Milan, June 21-23. The second day of the conference will be devoted to energy storage, with discussions centred on policy and new technology.
Storage has the power to prove itself as the backbone of our energy revolution. It could play a huge role in bringing us closer to individual energy autonomy, giving us more control over where it comes from and how we use our energy. It could also play a vital role in combatting climate change by ensuring that emerging cleaner energy technologies can realise their full potential in our future energy mix.