Energy storage dominates Solar Energy UK

The second day of Solar Energy UK in Birmingham highlighted the U.K.’s community energy potential and expanded on the electricity networks’ role in boosting or limiting the country’s solar PV sector. Discussions on energy storage largely dominated the event on Wednesday, attracting strong attention among participants and filling the Energy Plus Pavilion venue.

Energy storage was interestingly presented and analysed by a British distribution network operator (DNO), a utilities company, the solar PV sector and other energy stakeholders. All presentations expressed the strategic importance of energy storage for renewables and specifically solar PV.

U.K. storage mechanisms soon?

"One day the storage mechanism will come" said Ray Noble, an advisor to the U.K.’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and National Solar Centre (NSC).

"DECC thought storage was 10 to 20 years away, but technology has moved faster than anticipated with the battery cost curve today being similar to the solar PV’s cost curve about three years ago" Noble added.

The problem in the U.K., however, has been the lack of a best practise guidance or published standards, Noble said, but added that the NSC was now working on a best practise guidance for battery use in the grid. He added that standards would of course evolve in response to technological progress and that the U.K. needed to proceed fast.

Anthony Price, director of the Electricity Storage Network, the U.K.’s special interest industry group to promote the role of electrical energy storage, doubted that a storage mechanism would be in place before next year’s national elections. The subsidy issue is thorny and doesn’t sell politically, many representatives agreed, therefore the DECC is expected to postpone any battery scheme decision after May 7, 2015, the date of the U.K. election.

Instead, Germany stimulating its storage market and other European developments would pave the way for U.K. storage mechanisms, speakers agreed.

Why energy storage?

For a distribution network operator (DNO) there are both technical and business challenges that motivate them to deploy energy storage systems, said Steven Gough, innovation and low carbon networks engineer at Western Power Distribution, a British DNO.

Storage systems offer solutions to technical challenges like voltage control, smooth the power quality and shape electricity generation to power demand. But they can also offer DNOs more business choices too, Gough pointed out. Accommodating renewable energy projects requires active power control or grid reinforcement. Energy storage can offer a third business choice, and this is going be decided dependant on the affordability of the investment.

Regulation to allow winners

Looking at the winners and the losers of a new business model based on energy storage, DNOs would benefit, Gough argued. DNOs don’t trade energy, they only maintain the grid. However, because of the technical and business solutions energy storage offers, distributors will benefit financially.

Energy storage will enable renewable plant owners to sell their electricity at higher prices too, Gough said, clearly benefiting them.

The Electricity Storage Network’s Price, in his excellent presentation about the latest developments in energy storage technology, added that energy storage forced the industry to consider three aspects: the ownership of the storage project, its location and the storage duration.

Ownership of energy storage specifically relates to the entrepreneurial aspects of such systems. Owners, Price said, can be individual households, neighbourhoods, a renewable energy plant with storage on site, a renewable energy balancing station, or even a company providing ancillary services in the power market. Incentives and business models will directly depend on the ownership of storage facilities.

Dependant on a system’s storage duration, the storage technology will vary too. The longer the duration of a system, the more advanced technology will be needed. But technology isn’t the problem, Price argued, "how we run and manage these systems is."

For this reason, Price insisted, the government needs to classify storage systems and include them in its energy policies. Regulation mandates will then initiate improvement of energy storage business models. The instability of the U.K.’s power market as depicted by an electricity market regulation change every 10 years or so, doesn’t provide the right signals to the industry.

Gough agreed. "Imports and exports to energy storage systems might occur within half an hour, leading to crucial management questions that policy needs to address soon."

Fossil fuel losers?

Speakers preferred to discuss the possibilities energy storage offers to the deployment of renewable energy. Few focused on the losers, although Angus MacDonald, managing director of the British Solar Renewables, a leading integrated solar power developer, pointed out that energy storage was "a game changer, a disruptive alternative to centralised generation, that unlocks unused grid capacity."

From her part, Renewables Energy Association (REA) Chief Executive Nina Skorupska didn’t miss the opportunity to attack the DECC. The government, she said, was planning to auction over 50 GW of fossil fuel capacity via the capacity payments mechanism. The renewables industry therefore needs to push towards the development of all kinds of renewable energy and energy storage technology that replaces fossil fuels.

Not that the energy storage business case is fully defined. There are many business drivers for energy storage development and many related products (e.g balancing services) expected to emerge, Andrew Urquhart, of the Scottish and Southern Energy Power Distribution, said. "But there are equally undefined business cases to emerge too," he noted, underlining the exciting possibilities this type of technology may spur.

Speaking to pv magazine about whether or not the U.K is on track to create an industry around power storage technologies, Price said, "The U.K. government is very keen to support innovation and it does so funding several projects. But it is not supporting the market enough to create an industry."