Energy storage technology is crucial to lowering the UK's greenhouse gas emissions needs "new public finance and business models" to drive deployment, engineers have said.
A new report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) says the technology presents a potential solution to the technical challenges in realising the UK's targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent relative to 1990 levels by 2050 and meeting 15 per cent of its energy needs from renewable sources by the end of the decade.
While wind, solar and the oceans can be tapped for power with much lower emissions than fossil fuel equivalents, electricity is produced in a less predictable manner and does not always tally with times of consumer demand. Balancing supply and demand can be achieved through installing back-up gas power, but this risks pushing up emissions further.
As a result, renewable generators "are often simply switched off" the report says, generating constraint payments for operators that have been the subject of critical headlines. National Grid constraint payments to wind farm operators were about 34m between 2011 and 2012, IMechE says, which accounts for 10 per cent of the total paid to all generators - far less than those made to gas power plants, for example. But proportionally the support is reloatively high given wind accounted for less than five per cent of energy produced at the time and as the sector expands the issue is likely to become of greater concern.
Energy storage offers a potential solution by enabling "wrong time electricity" generated from renewable sources to be used at peak times of consumer demand and address the seasonal challenge of demand for power and heat being higher in winter months than in the summer.
IMechE says using energy storage in this way would allow for greater returns on investment from wind farms, solar parks, and marine energy devices, defer the costs of upgrading distribution systems for expanding towns and cities, and help communities to become more energy self-sufficient and therefore resilient to extreme weather events, which are likely to increase with climate change.
It adds that a range of energy storage technologies are already commercially available or in development, such as batteries and pumped storage, where cheap electricity is used to push water uphill or compress air in a cave that can then be released to turn turbines when required. Heat can also be stored using molten sand or water or recovered by reversing chemical reactions, such as inducing phase changes in materials or thermochemical processes, but these technologies have "not been paid sufficient attention" in the UK.
Storing energy for transport fuel has proved more problematic and would involve accelerating the growth of electric vehicles or inviting the huge cost of replacing the UK's petrol and diesel infrastructure with hydrogen or biofuels.
The UK government has a 20m competition to support energy storage research and demonstration and last year unveiled plans for a Catapult research centre focusing on the issue.
But IMechE says it needs to do more to realise the technology's potential. It calls on the government to work with industry to produce a roadmap for electricity, heat, and transport energy storage that addresses its ability to contribute both to emissions reductions and overseas exports for UK technology and engineering, along with a system of incentives to encourage research, development and demonstrator activity.
But it also warns the government may have to reassess its "obsession with 'cheapness' in the energy sector" if it is to tackle rising demand for energy.
"Whatever form of energy is used in the UK, costs will have to continue to rise into the future," the report says. "In comparison with other European countries, the UK has for decades focused on keeping energy prices artificially low, which has led to over-consumption of energy, while the necessary demand-side reduction measures have not been put in place.
"This attitude must change and an alternative culture developed which recognises the value of energy and drives sustainable change in the nation's energy system."
Source: businessGreen Plus
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14 June 2017