Eco-friendly battery energy storage systems will be a necessity for renewable energy- dependent societies.

1GW of space, there are already plans for local authorities and energy companies to build over ten times that. More to the point, says O’Neill, this expansion could make a huge dent in the UK’s ambitious energy goals.

“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,” she says. “The rapidly changing grid, with more, smaller and distributed sources of power mean a greater flexibility.” Professor Phil Taylor agrees. The pro vice- chancellor for research and enterprise at the University of Bristol notes that the future boom in storage units should solve another engineering question: grid inertia. Enormous nuclear or fossil fuel turbines spin for a few seconds, even after they fail, giving enough time for the system to correct itself, but wind farms are too weak to manage the same trick. As a result, an over-reliance on turbines risks power cuts every time there’s a problem – unless, that is, you can keep enough energy backed up in storage units. As Taylor puts it, energy storage is a “really fantastic way” of balancing wind power and demand, ultimately keeping the whole system stable. That’s especially true, he adds, if we fully exploit the remarkable power of machine learning and automation. By teaching storage units where and when demand is likely to surge – if a new episode of Love Island is on, for example, or when the nation’s workers make themselves their first tea of the day – the grid can shift energy around automatically.

Broken front

Not everyone is thrilled about the forward march of storage units, however. In an article published in July 2020 for The Conversation, Professor Andrew

World Wind Technology /

Cruden, of the University of Southampton, attacked the phenomenon as a waste of money, arguing that policymakers should instead focus on the huge potential of electric vehicles. Among other things, Cruden pointed out that buses and lorries emit far more carbon emissions than the grid – and that just one in ten of the country’s cars are electric. “Pursuing ever-larger, stationary battery systems,” Cruden wrote, “may not be the optimal solution for the UK to have a renewable energy future.”

A significant challenge, then, but one that Taylor argues is hardly unassailable. Imagine a country, he says, with hundreds of thousands of electric cars, with a certain percentage plugged into the mains at any one time. Citing the work of E4TheFuture, a US-based clean energy think tank, he imagines a time when excess juice from these vacant car batteries could be returned to the mains at times of stress. That, in turn, would remove the need for expensive stationary storage units altogether – our hatchbacks or SUVs would act as rolling ones instead. O’Neill makes a similar point, suggesting that vehicle-to-grid services could provide up to 38GW of storage space by 2050. Not that our work is done quite yet. Because they contain toxic chemicals, battery disposal can still damage the environment in whatever form it takes. And then there’s the usual struggle of getting new units fully integrated into an old grid, teaching staff how they work and troubleshooting glitches as they appear. Even so, you’d have to be brave to bet against the coming dominance of renewables, all the way from Lands’ End to the Scottish Highlands. Not that the British public will really notice, of course. As long as the kettle still boils and the television turns on, they’re far happier watching the Beckhams of today without worrying too much about how it’s all run. ●


Proportion of power in the UK generated by wind turbines in 2020.

National Grid ESO 3,447MW

Installed wind power generated by turbines in the UK in 2008.


Installed wind power generated by turbines in the UK in 2020.

Statista 19


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