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Why energy storage is necessary for the UK to achieve net zero by 2050

Energy storage

If the UK hopes to achieve its net zero goal by 2050, it will need behind-the-meter assets like energy storage to help balance the grid, explains Richard Molloy, manager, UK Energy Storage, Eaton.

By now, we all know the way we generate power is changing. Recent reports that the UK has undergone its longest period of coal-free power generation since the industrial revolution are a cause for celebration, but are not surprising. 

After a decade of ramping up renewable energy adoption and closing coal-fired plants, the country has gone from 40% of its power coming from coal to just a few percent – and cut carbon emissions per KWh by more than half in the process. 

All over the world, dramatically falling prices for renewable energy and a growing appreciation of the urgency of decarbonisation mean that massive changes are underway: it’s estimated that in another 30 years’ time more than 50% of our global power mix may come from solar and wind power.

There is, however, more to the story than just reducing emissions. As part of and alongside the move to renewable power, we are also seeing power generation spread out from fewer, larger plants to more, smaller plants. These plants are now connecting to each other, and with the world they power, in much smarter ways. 

By thinking about this decarbonisation, decentralisation, and digitisation as parts of a cohesive change, we can see how to solve some of the significant challenges to increasing renewable energy adoption – and how end-users from homeowners to large businesses can help contribute.

What’s keeping traditional power necessary?

With electricity from renewable sources achieving (or being close to achieving) price-parity with traditional sources in many parts of the world, it’s worth reminding ourselves what the remaining blockers to full adoption are. When it doesn’t cost anything extra and will become even cheaper to generate power without emissions in the future, why are we only expecting renewables to have a 50% share by 2050?

A major reason, of course, is simply that building power generation capacity is a significant investment of time and money, with long purchasing cycles and many traditional power plants still paying off their capital investment costs. Besides this fact, though, there are two key elements which are more tractable.

First, it is critical to balance power supplied to the grid with demand taken from it in order to manage system frequency and to maintain sufficient capacity. Renewable energy is a variable source of power and output can be difficult to predict. Very fast acting flexible energy systems, such as battery energy storage, are required to stabilise the grid frequency. 

While globally the sun and wind have more than enough power to fuel everything we do as a species, we cannot guarantee how much sun will shine or how much wind will blow in any given location or at any given time. Natural gas plants are adept at quickly stopping and starting production in line with shortfalls in the renewable supply, which is vital for providing the capacity to avoid blackouts.

Second, our collective demand for electricity is set to rise sharply over the coming decades. In a recent analysis of how Northern Europe’s usage will change, BloombergNEF suggested that demand could grow by 65% in the next 30 years. This is not, primarily, as a result of economic growth; rather, it is driven by the adoption of electric vehicles, the electrification of heating and cooling in buildings, and moving industrial processes such as manufacturing chemicals away from fossil fuel-based processes.

Between them, these two factors pose a real problem for our need to taper down fossil fuel generation and build up renewable supply. The target generation capacity is constantly growing, and it might be risky to become reliant on renewables that cannot keep the lights on over the course of a windless night.

How will decentralisation aid decarbonisation?

Of course, while a lot of renewable generation capacity is installed in the form of large-scale farms which, in terms of power supplied, constitute like-for-like replacements for coal and natural gas plants, there are also many much smaller installations, from solar panels on residential roofs to solitary turbines helping to power specific businesses. 

This gives the grid a very different shape, in that we no longer assume that the grid is divided into points of power production and power consumption. Rather, it’s increasingly the case that buildings which consume power will also produce their power, and the grid is adapting to that by allowing small-scale producers to feed power back to the grid when they have a surplus.

The real opportunity of this comes from the fact that, from the grid’s perspective, it doesn’t matter whether this power is being fed back in as it is generated by a solar panel or if it comes from a battery system. 

With the adoption of behind-the-meter assets such as electric vehicle charging stations and on-site static battery systems, BloombergNEF’s 2019 New Energy Outlook foresees the installed base of energy storage growing by a factor of 13 over the next decade. 

A static battery system might be installed to provide back-up power, to reserve energy generated in off-peak periods for later use, or to charge electric vehicles. For much of the time, however, the energy they store is likely to be sitting idle; decentralisation means that this distributed storage can support the grid.

How will digitalisation aid decarbonisation?

As fast as our approach to power generation has been changing recently, the way we think about data is changing even faster. It’s easy to forget that just a decade ago the concept of the cloud was new and unfamiliar – but today, the idea that data is not tied to a physical location has come to seem so normal that we often don’t mention the cloud at all.

To go further and faster along the road to net zero, we need to transform how we think about power in a similar way. The rapid global rollout of data centres – which themselves constitute an increasingly significant part of our power demand – has created a system where tools and information can be sent and received to and from anywhere. 

Decarbonising and decentralising our power networks is giving rise to ‘Everything as a Grid’, where the flow of power is similarly two-way and enfranchises businesses and individuals to produce, consume, and sell energy.

Realising this will require digitising the new distributed grid, ensuring that these flows are handled in a smart way which is sensitive to the needs of both the power producer and the wider network. Nobody, after all, would be happy about a car with empty batteries because it was feeding into the grid. 

Massive digitisation also entails new risks and challenges: expertise will need to be applied to questions of resilience, safety, and cybersecurity in a grid where both information and energy are being exchanged.

The result, however, will be a collaborative approach which makes deep penetration of renewable energy more viable both technologically and economically – and in which everybody has a part to play.

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