Electric cars could be a neat contributor solution to the issue of energy storage: when not in use, they can provide power back to the national grid.

it from the inherent fickleness of the wind and its currents. Not that some Whitehall bureaucrat can click their fingers and wish a greener UK into existence. Batteries come with their own set of environmental problems, while some critics argue we should simply aim our fire at totally different solutions, especially those with four wheels.

Sound investment

Between the interminable crises of Covid-19 and Brexit, in December 2020 Boris Johnson found time to announce a brand new energy strategy for his country. Talking with his typical bravado via video to a UN conference on climate change in New York, the UK prime minister proclaimed that his country could be the “Saudi Arabia” of wind energy.

“More intelligent energy use and technology will encourage the transition to a smarter, more flexible grid and help us achieve our ambition of being able to operate the grid carbon-free by 2025.”

Kayte O’Neill

8,600 2,300

Onshore wind turbines in the UK.

Offshore turbines in the UK.

The Switch 18

“We’ve got huge, huge gusts of wind going around the north of our country,” he said. “Quite extraordinary potential we have for wind.” Not a surprising pronouncement, given the prime minister’s rhetorical record. All the same, whatever you think of this typically Johnsonian comparison with the oil-rich absolute monarchy, in this case he actually has a point – at least when it comes to electricity production. According to Kayte O’Neill, head of markets at National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO), the UK’s energy sector is at a tipping point: “[In 2019,] zero carbon power outstripped fossil fuel in the

electricity mix for the first time since the industrial revolution, and [2020 was] a record-breaking year for the UK’s electricity system, with a 68-day coal- free run from spring into summer.” This enthusiasm is partly shadowed by the numbers. We may not be exporting wind energy like the Saudis sell barrels of oil, but turbines are now so cheap and plentiful that suppliers could soon be paying money back to consumers. Look a little deeper, though, and things are rather less rosy – or were until recently, anyway. Until July 2020, the government made storage units incredibly difficult to build, which in turn dampened the potential of wind energy. To put it another way, why would operators care about all those gigawatts if they can’t monetise them, buying and selling excess energy as the nation demands? To be fair, the government’s erstwhile reluctance did start from a sensible place. Trying to prevent inefficient monopolies, it limited interaction between different strands of the market, in some cases banning network operators from owning storage. The problem, of course, is that by definition these units sit somewhere in the middle of the supply chain, halfway between the wind farm and the consumer’s home.

In practice, that limited the enthusiasm or ability of companies to build storage units, a problem compounded by the technology itself. Although the biggest industrial batteries can store over 31MW, they’re ultimately not that different from the ones that charge our mobile phones. And just like the batteries on iPhones and Android phones, they degrade over time – and unlike the common smartphone, cost millions of pounds to replace.

Grid, locked

On the evening of 9 August 2019, just as millions of people were settling down for another Friday night of television, the consequences of these shortsighted policies became darkly apparent – literally. After the Hornsea wind farm, just north of Hull, became disconnected from the grid, the resulting gap in supply resulted in about 3% of UK households losing power. Embarrassing for the powers-that-be, certainly, but also a warning of what happens in a world without battery units. Had suppliers been able to store energy in advance for just such an emergency, those 750,000 homes would probably not have been affected. That’s doubly true for wind farms, reliant as they are on the fickleness of nature to generate electricity. Fortunately, such a fiasco seems unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. Although the government only loosened the rules in July, making it easier for electricity companies to invest in storage units, there’s been an explosion of interest. From just

World Wind Technology /


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