The burning questions

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Energy stored in batteries, especially energy generated from renewable sources, could ease our move away from fossil fuels and towards the low-to-no carbon future prescribed by the recent CCC Net Zero Report, writes ECA energy and emerging technologies solutions advisor Luke Osborne. 

In early May, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published its latest report, laying out how the UK can achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the report is not its ambitious target, but how realistically feasible its ‘Net Zero’ goal could actually be.

In recent years, the UK’s energy mix has shifted dramatically with fossil fuels, notably coal, being dropped in favour of renewable and less polluting alternatives. To put this into perspective, in 2012 coal generated 40% of the UK’s electricity, but this fell to just 2% in the first half of 2017. Coal has been largely replaced by increases in wind, solar, bioenergy and gas production.

Even more recently, a particularly encouraging piece of news said that from 1 to 8 May 2019, Britain had its first entire week without using electricity generated from burning coal since 1882, according to the National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO).

Winning combination

Technology has, for the last decade, driven innovation through renewable energy – now a mainstream, economically viable way to generate electricity using the sun, wind and water. With the ability to store that energy using batteries, our dependence on conventional methods could be significantly reduced, and the case for batteries made even stronger. 

In principle, solar, wind and energy storage are a winning combination. While combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants still provide most of the UK’s electrical energy, they are increasingly underpinned by renewable energy, which has delivered major growth in capacity in recent years. Once set up, renewables tend to deliver the cheapest (and lowest carbon) electricity available to the UK market.

The solar/wind/storage triad can minimise customers’ energy bills, and notably their exposure to short-term price fluctuations via half-hourly metering. These savings can even be supplemented by income from emerging activities such as grid balancing. The result: many new installation and maintenance opportunities for the electrotechnical industry, whether for owners, customers, contractors or other third parties.

But the perennial renewables conundrum remains: turbines don’t turn without wind, and PV panels don’t produce energy without sunshine. Batteries could be the solution to that problem.

A more balanced grid

The government’s Industrial Strategy and Clean Growth Strategy are underpinned by a clear understanding that economic growth in the next few years will depend on an increasingly low-carbon UK economy, and the development of more distributed renewable and storage technologies. 

To facilitate this shift, the government wants to make the grid fit for purpose, effectively remodelling it to accommodate renewable sources. Batteries could be a major stepping stone towards making our grid (built for fossil fuels) more adaptable and support it on a more flexible basis, allowing us to reach the goal of de-centralised electricity generation.

Considerable publicity is given to batteries, many of which offer excellent capabilities. For instance, battery and flywheel systems provide around x10 faster and more precise service response to the grid, compared to turbine generators. 

Growing market 

A key commercial attraction of battery storage, as costs continue to fall, is its relative ease of deployment (batteries can be set up in numerous locations). Lithium-ion batteries currently dominate the market, offering high discharge and recharge rates – ideal for frequency response.

Correctly designed and installed alternative power systems are an essential part of any electrical installation, to safeguard its continued operation during power outages. Using stored energy to this end will likely be the next step on the way to fully decarbonising our economy.

The opportunities for contractors are therefore significant, and they include the design, installation, maintenance and servicing of smart, renewable and distributed power systems. ECA believes this area is set to grow as solar, wind and battery prices continue to fall, and we expect new opportunities in the electrotechnical industry to emerge – provided the skilled capacity to deliver is there. 

UK carbon emissions have been reduced by more than 40% since 1990, while the economy has grown by two thirds, which means we have successfully ‘decoupled’ carbon emissions from economic growth. With implementation of the Industrial Strategy, the Clean Growth Strategy, and now the CCC Net Zero Report, these trends are set to continue and should lead to considerable business opportunities for electrical contractors.

ECA has identified at least 25 different low-carbon or energy-efficient technologies that are available to asset managers and contractors, ranging from LEDs to renewables, and movement sensors to batteries. To find out more, or to join ECA, please visit the ECA website.

 

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