Getting the UK’s grid ready for net-zero: the need for long-duration energy storage

Getting the UK’s grid ready for net-zero: the need for long-duration energy storage

Britain has decarbonised faster than any other major economy in the world, thanks in large part to the fantastic renewable resources we have. But last year some of that valuable renewable power, enough to supply more than 1 million homes for an entire year, was wasted. For a country working hard to achieve ambitious climate targets it does not make any sense.

The simple reason why it was wasted is that our electricity system does not have the capacity to store enough excess renewable power in the right places when the weather is blowing in the country’s favour.

The Climate Change Committee has warned that without significant investment in flexible technologies such as long-duration storage, this problem is going to get worse in the years ahead. The Committee has forecast that curtailment levels of renewable power could rise to 50 TWh by 2050, up from 3.6 TWh last year.

Long-duration storage technologies may not have featured heavily in the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan but we believe they are a key component of any credible plan to keep the lights on, keep energy bills as low as possible, and bring power sector emissions to zero.

Short-duration lithium-ion batteries have been the main focus of policymakers to date when considering the role of storage, but what is often forgotten is that the speed and scale of the UK’s transition will also require flexible technologies that can store and generate electricity for much longer durations – from several hours to a full day, and even from several days to weeks in some cases.

While a growing number of industry experts from the International Energy Agency to the UK’s Climate Change Committee have all recognised the critical role of long-duration storage, barriers remain to the deployment of such technologies in the UK.

With the right policy framework, the UK can unlock development in new pumped storage hydro capacity which is the most cost-effective and proven technology to deliver flexibility and storage at scale. We can also accelerate the deployment of emerging technologies such as liquid air energy storage, flow batteries and hydrogen, all the while ensuring that the scaling-up of these technologies is done sustainably and in close consultation with local communities.

“Long-duration storage technologies are a key component of any credible plan to keep the lights on, keep energy bills as low as possible, and bring power sector emissions to zero.”

The need for such technologies is becoming more pressing every day. In March, the UK experienced its longest spell of low wind output in more than a decade, and while gas power plants filled the supply gap, the associated emissions are incompatible with our journey to net zero. Recent power crises that caused severe blackouts in California and Texas have also brought into sharp focus the need to adequately plan for extreme weather events.

Long-duration storage technologies can not only make a zero-carbon electricity system a reality faster, but they can also help it come at a lower cost for consumers. They can reduce the need to curtail, or shut down, excess wind or solar output and store it to be used later when required by the grid.

A recent study by researchers from Imperial College London found that just 4.5 GW of new long-duration storage, with 90 GWh of capacity, would save up to £690m per year in energy system costs in 2050. This ultimately would mean lower bills and greener energy for households, helping the environment and communities at the same time.  

There are also wider economic benefits, such as the creation of thousands of skilled jobs and injection of billions of pounds into often remote and rural areas of the country to support the government’s levelling-up agenda. In addition, certain long-duration storage technologies offer the UK tremendous export opportunities.

Despite the powerful case for utilising this widening range of storage technologies, a number of regulatory and market barriers stand in the way of deploying them at scale.

Current market design and existing support mechanisms do not reward long-duration storage technologies for the full value of services that they can provide. Revenue uncertainty over a storage asset’s life combined with the large capital investment required to deliver them makes these technologies difficult to finance. Just as the Contracts for Difference scheme has been very successful for de-risking renewables investment, long-duration storage requires a clearly defined revenue stabilisation mechanism.

Britain needs to reduce its carbon emissions fast, and these technologies are critical to doing so. That’s why environmental NGOs, energy companies and developers have come together to make the case for removing barriers to deploying these climate saving technologies in the UK.

Over the coming months we will work closely with the UK Government and other key stakeholders to develop the solutions needed to ensure these technologies can support our net zero ambitions alongside other forms of system flexibility such as interconnectors, demand side response and batteries.

The imminent release of the Smart Systems & Flexibility Plan update led by BEIS and Ofgem provides the UK Government with the perfect opportunity to kick start and accelerate this process. In the year of COP26 and with the global need for long-duration storage technologies growing, the UK can demonstrate leadership in this critical area to the energy transition and showcase how the planet as a whole can get on the path to net zero. We stand ready to unlock that potential.

This opinion article has been co-signed by the following energy and environment leaders:

  • SSE Renewables, Jim Smith, Managing Director
  • Drax Group, Will Gardiner, CEO
  • Highview Power, Javier Cavada, CEO
  • ILI Group, Mark Wilson, CEO
  • Invinity Energy Systems, Lawrence A. Zulch, CEO
  • Greenpeace, Dr Doug Parr, Chief Scientist and Policy Director
  • Green Alliance, Caterina Brandmayr, Head of climate policy

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