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Opinion

Richard Molloy, manager, UK Energy Storage, Eaton, explains why flexibility is key to the energy transition.

National Grid predicted that zero-carbon energy sources would overtake fossil fuels as the UK’s largest electricity source in 2019 – and they did. In fact, last year was a landmark tipping point for the UK’s energy mix, with many exciting “firsts” and records achieved. In May, Britain clocked up its first coal free fortnight. Between July and September 2019, renewable energy sources provided more electricity to UK homes and businesses than fossil fuels – for the first time since the UK’s first power plant fired up in 1882. And in December, onshore and offshore wind generated a record 16+GW of power, providing more than 40% of the nation’s electricity needs.

Renewable energy will continue to overtake traditional sources in the UK in 2020 and beyond. As a result, flexibility – and therefore energy storage – will become an urgent conversation within the energy market this year. If the uptick in renewable generation is not matched by an increase in more flexible technology to stabilise the grid, a zero-carbon future will remain out of reach.

Flexibility: key to the energy transition

To combat the global growth in greenhouse gas emissions and create a more sustainable future, the world’s energy sector has begun a fundamental transition – driven by decarbonisation, decentralisation and digitisation. As a result, variable renewable electricity generation is increasing. Power systems and markets must therefore become more flexible to compensate for the greater volatility caused by adding more renewables to the grid.

Flexibility refers to the extent to which generation and demand can quickly respond to a changing power system and market conditions. Flexibility services provide valuable support to stabilise grid operations, balance supply and demand and ensure that system frequency and voltage stay within operational limits, especially when unexpected changes occur.

Without increased flexibility through technology such as energy storage, smart-charging electric vehicles, demand response and interconnectors, the energy transition will falter. For instance, energy storage and smart electric vehicle charging provide flexibility by moving large volumes of renewable energy to periods of high demand, or moving demand to periods of high renewable generation. Without this type of smart, flexible capability, our expensive power system will remain reliant on fossil-fuelled backup and installing excess wind and solar capacity to cope with shifting power demands.

The energy transition will massively lower carbon emissions and improve air quality, yet the opportunity will be limited unless energy markets are designed and regulated in a way that unlocks the full value of flexibility in the electricity system. Today the energy transition, enabled by flexibility market reform, is already well underway in many European countries, yet the pace of progress varies.

The state of play in Europe

Large discrepancies exist across markets when it comes to energy transition readiness. A recent REA report commissioned by Eaton and Drax studied the status of electricity flexibility markets in nine Northern European countries. This Energy Transition Readiness Index found that Britain ranked eighth out of the nine countries in attracting and facilitating investment in electricity system flexibility. Comparatively, tnet zerohe Netherlands and Scandinavian countries are more advanced at making the most of new distributed flexibility resources.

The report found that Germany, France and Great Britain have been slower to adopt the policies and regulations necessary to facilitate change. New providers of flexibility services, including distributed generation, energy storage, and demand response, can face challenges to investment and deployment in these countries due to barriers such as limitations to access flexible power markets.

However, Great Britain is taking steps in the right direction – ranking more highly in the index against socio-political factors, such as policy and regulatory alignment. In June 2019, the UK became the first major economy to pass a net zero emissions law, requiring the country to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. While this commitment must be welcomed, achieving a more flexible energy market and reaching this 2050 emissions target will require every person – and building – in the UK to play their part.

The commercial business case for energy storage

Drax, the UK’s largest renewable power generator, supplies 12% of the UK’s renewable electricity. In support of the UK’s 2050 net-zero emissions target, Drax looked to empower its customers to reduce their own emissions by giving them greater choice over when they use the energy generated from small-scale on-site renewables, such as wind turbines or solar panels.

To achieve this, Drax partnered with Eaton to develop a commercial business case for energy storage so Drax could create an offering for its customers. By installing Eaton’s xStorage Buildings Energy Storage System at UK sites, businesses can better manage their energy consumption and support the UK’s 2050 net-zero emission target by harnessing the full potential of their renewables.

Yennard’s Farm in Leicestershire was one of the first sites where an Eaton xStorage Buildings system with a power rating of 40kW and a battery capacity of 50kWh was installed. The system maximises the amount of energy the farm can use from its on-site solar panels rather than exporting the excess to the grid. The stored energy can meet the farm’s electricity demand during peak times, reducing the farm’s electricity bill and easing grid congestion. It reduces the need for the grid to supply power generated by fossil fuels, contributing towards lower carbon emissions from the UK’s electricity grid.

The collaboration between Eaton and Drax is proof of the commercial viability of energy storage technology today. As a core component of a more flexible energy market, batteries will play a vital role in helping both commercial and residential buildings to become energy hubs which can balance a range of generated and stored energy sources in a smart way to reduce peak demand and optimise use of renewable sources. This potential makes buildings – from farms to sports stadiums – key to the UK’s flexible energy market. Building owners, managers and developers will need to understand and implement flexible energy options, such as battery storage, if the UK is to create a cleaner energy mix and meet its climate ambitions by 2050.