Creating a battery-powered Britain

Britain's industry will be more competitive with the widespread ability to self-generate and store electricity. 

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Home batteries growing in popularity, solar module prices plummeting, record renewable power generation levels in 2017, and new government support for British manufacturing – where does one begin to make sense of the growing number of positive clean energy headlines?

To start, it needs to be said that the UK’s energy sector is going through a period of disruption on the scale of the emergence of the combustion engine or advent of nuclear power generation. The “disruptors” are renewables, energy storage, electric vehicles and associated digital systems, and are backed by some world-leading climate policy.

Clear policy and long-term vision have already won the UK a reputation as a global leader in deploying new technologies. The UK’s Climate Change Act underpins our reputation as one of the leading markets for clean tech and I agree with minister Claire Perry who recently described the legislation as the “gold standard” in emissions reduction policy. Our ambitious legislation has already earned us a distinct international edge in the development of green financial products and business models, of cutting-edge software management systems, and in our ability actually to deploy these new technologies on the ground. 

In my view, the next big story is that of energy storage. There are a large range of technologies such as liquid “flow” batteries, compressed air systems that use underground caverns and even use of the second-hand batteries from electric vehicles. In the future such systems will be deployed in homes and alongside power generation sites across the country. 

The government sees the industrial opportunity of this new sector and that is why they have set up the £246m Faraday Challenge. The challenge’s support is already funding cutting-edge battery storage trials and vehicle-to-grid technology, which will allow for idle, plugged-in electric vehicles to both feed and take power from the grid. It is also going into the nation’s universities and into creating a new manufacturing scale-up facility in Coventry. 

We’re not alone in our pursuit of building batteries, energy storage systems, and electric vehicles (which often happen alongside each other). Such policy is incorporated into China’s current Five Year Plan, is being incorporated by existing national players such as Japan and South Korea, and is being championed by the European Commission with their new “Airbus-style” Battery Alliance. 

The European Commission alone is aiming to prompt development of between 10 and 20 EU-based, Tesla-style “gigafactories” in the coming years. This represents enormous clean energy investment if we are to think that Tesla’s Nevada gigafactory will produce the same battery capacity in 2020 as all manufacturers globally in 2013. If the UK is to win market share we need to move quickly.

I believe that, if a range of policies in this country are quickly amended and energy storage costs continue to fall, that we could see up to 12GW of battery storage deployment in the country by the end of 2021. That’s very significant, and up from less than 1GW in 2016. This would be a historic boost to our energy security, create green jobs, and demonstrate our international leadership in the field. 

My view, which is supported by the Renewable Energy Association, is that there are significant opportunities to build storage systems alongside offshore wind sites, on solar farms, in homes, as standalone systems, and alongside EV charge hubs, to name a few options. 

If the technology is rapidly developing, if the social need in terms of tackling climate change is proven, and the UK government is supporting the creation of new facilities and trails, what’s left to do? In my view, the piece that’s missing is the creation of a market.

Building markets – the role for policy

To build better products and exports we need robust domestic markets. The key to unlocking this is the Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan, released in July 2017, which aims to further transform our electricity system to one in which a multitude of decentralised points of clean energy generation and storage are able to rapidly react to changes in production and demand. 

Good progress has been made to date on the twenty-nine point plan but much more needs to be done to keep pace with our global competitors. As a particular priority we need to find parliamentary time to introduce a clear definition for energy storage in primary legislation. 

How the electricity network operators charge for use of, and connection to, the grid needs to reflect the benefits of a smarter system that allows for the storage of power. There’s been a huge amount of technological change, but many of the grid codes remain esoteric which is creating bottlenecks. 

We need reforms that both empower the networks to manage local EV, solar, and storage demands but also ones that pressure them to ensure that new project developers can actually do business and connect up their projects. 

Demand-side response, in which larger energy users such as food refrigerators turn down their power usage for short periods of time, is another new technology that UK companies are leading on. So too is the idea of “aggregation” in which thousands of home batteries are collected into a single virtual power plant that can respond when power needs to be turned up or down. Frustratingly these unconventional forms of power management can’t bid into auctions in the same way a new gas-fired power station can, and the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy still needs to take action. 

In my mind, beyond the Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan, three key issues remain. One is around building regulations – our homes of the future need to be energy efficient and carbon neutral. Costs for new solar power systems and batteries are already low but can fall further if incorporated into a new building. This will also support the government’s ambition of rolling out home electric vehicle charging. 

The government has also shown a willingness to use the tax system to spur markets and tackle common challenges – for example on discouraging single-use plastics. A step further would be to sensitively design the business rates methodology for the energy storage sector as it gets onto its own two feet. 

Finally, consumer protection is paramount. Consumers need to know which installers they can trust. That means industry and the regulator collaborating, for example by supporting existing schemes such as the Renewable Energy Consumer Code (RECC), which plays a key role in providing guidance and ensuring high standards in the sale and installation of small-scale renewable energy systems and battery storage. 

With the right combination of industry and government collaboration Britain can be leading this energy revolution, not playing catch up.

 

Peter Aldous is chair of the APPG on energy storage.