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UK at risk of failing to meet 2050 deadline for net zero carbon unless it invests in 10x more energy storage

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Earlier this year, the UK became the first major economy in the world to commit to a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050. Despite signing that commitment into law, the country is at risk of failing to reach that goal, as Drax’s Electric Insights has found that the country would need 10 times as much energy storage to support the energy transition to renewable power. 

Currently the UK has around 3GW of energy storage, which hasn’t been a major problem up until now as the country has the ability to generate power 24 hours a day, seven days a week thanks to the use of natural gas and coal-fired power plants. Unfortunately, the country’s ambition to reach a net zero carbon target by 2050 means that it will need to transition to more renewable energy, which includes wind and solar. That’s where the lack of energy storage presents a problem. 

You see, wind and solar energy is known as ‘intermittent’ renewables, meaning they’re not always available to generate power. If it’s a calm day, there isn’t going to be much wind to produce power from a wind farm, and in the middle of winter when the days are short, we have little precious time to leverage solar power. That’s why energy storage is key to the transition, as it allows energy companies to store power during peak production for use when production drops. 

Unfortunately, the UK would need at least 30GW of energy storage to meet its net zero carbon goal, which is 10 times as much as it has today. With researchers at Imperial College, London, noting that for every unit of intermittent renewables added to the system, the UK will need an additional 0.2 units of energy storage capacity to smooth out intermittency and keep the grid stable.

Dr Iain Staffell of Imperial College London and lead author of the quarterly Electric Insights reports, said, “Energy storage is one of the most important issues in the energy industry – it has the potential to dictate the pace, scale and cost of the energy transition. Along with other technologies, such as interconnection and flexible generation, energy storage helps integrate more renewables onto the system, which makes it easier to manage the grid and enables greater decarbonisation at lowest cost.”

Already the UK is experiencing a seismic shift to renewable energy, and according to Drax, the energy storage market needs to keep up. The Imperial College study found that variable renewables are providing an increasing share of energy supply, with wind farms alone providing more than half of Britain’s electricity for the first time ever in Q3 2019. This is creating unprecedented challenges in balancing the power system.

Keeping the UK’s power system stable made up a tenth of the total cost of generating electricity and the cost of balancing the power system hit a record high of £3.80/MWh in Q3. Energy storage can help lower this cost. 

Dr Oliver Schmidt, co-author of the report and senior consultant at cleantech advisory Apricum, added, “This summer’s blackout in Britain highlights the value of having a range of fast-acting technologies and that demand will only grow as older thermal power plants retire and are replaced by intermittent renewables.

“We’ll also need a rapid expansion of other forms of flexibility, such as demand-side response, interconnectors and fast-acting flexible power stations as well as from pumped hydro storage, which is currently the biggest storage technology, and batteries where costs are falling.”

What would the energy storage look like? 

Energy storage comes in many shapes and sizes, with Drax noting that it doesn’t have to be the lithium-ion battery packs that have become popular over the last few years. Sure, solutions such as Tesla’s Powerpack will have its place in a modern grid, but pumped hydro can also provide ample energy storage that would be even cleaner than batteries. 

Andy Koss, CEO Generation, Drax, concluded: “Pumped hydro storage plays a vital role in the UK’s energy system today – able to reach full load in as little as 30 seconds, it is proven to be able to react quickly to resolve intermittency issues associated with some renewable technologies.

“It’s clear from this Electric Insights report that more energy storage systems are vital to ensure the country has the power it needs in the decades ahead as wind and solar become the biggest sources of electricity. As the leading flexible power generator on Great Britain’s national grid, Drax has opportunities in storage and other technologies to enable a zero carbon, lower cost energy future.”

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