15 october 2016

Energy storage vital to keep UK lights on, say MPs

Committee urges investment in batteries and smart demand technologies to ensure energy supply as old coal and nuclear power stations close

Fiona Harvey, The Guardian, Saturday 15 October 2016

Large-scale batteries to store energy and devices that switch themselves off are likely to be key technologies for keeping the UK’s lights on while shutting down old coal and nuclear plants, an influential committee of MPs has said.

The threat of blackouts has receded for this winter after scares earlier in the year, National Grid said on Friday, citing a reprieve for Yorkshire’s Eggborough coal-fired power station, as well as greater flexibility from companies with big energy requirements.

But the respite will be brief unless further action is taken, warned parliament’s energy and climate change select committee. The MPs recommend investment in two major areas: on the supply side, energy storage; and on the demand side, efficiency technologies that smooth out peaks in usage, for instance by switching devices off and on and running them at lower power at times.

Angus MacNeil, chair of the committee, said: “The government must get a move on and encourage the energy market to embrace smart technological solutions like energy storage and demand-side response. There is an incredible opportunity for the UK to become a world leader in these disruptive technologies, yet our current energy security subsidies favour dirty diesel generation over smart new clean tech solutions.”

The committee also called for sweeping reforms to the government’s regulation of the energy market, which include a “capacity market” for ensuring there is sufficient electricity supply and contracts awarded to suppliers through an auction. While these systems were supposed to reward renewable energy companies and reduce the carbon emitted by electricity generation, in practice some of the main beneficiaries have been generators using diesel oil, which is one of the dirtiest forms of generation but very flexible.

Redrawing these regulations could benefit cleaner generation such as wind farms and solar power, as well as newer technologies such as large-scale batteries and systems to manage energy, called demand-side response.

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, backed the call for reform: “This report from a cross-party group of MPs is an urgent wake-up call for Theresa May’s government. It’s embarrassing that Britain, one of the world’s leading economies, has to hand out taxpayer-funded subsidies to clunking old coal plants and highly polluting diesel generators to keep the lights on. The right mix of renewable energy, battery storage and efficiency measures offers a much better alternative.”

The technology available to manage demand and increase efficiency is growing fast, according to Friends of the Earth, and the cost of it is also falling. But government support – such as reforms of the current regulations – would increase its uptake, with beneficial effects.

Simon Bullock, campaigner at the charity, said: “[These technologies] are a massive economic opportunity for the UK. They’re essential to build the smart, flexible, clean electricity grid we need in the 2020s, and they reduce our reliance on fossil fuel plants for backup power, and can help lower people’s bills.”

Companies involved in demand-side response technology say that, after decades of development, it is now at a stage where it can play a big role in energy efficiency, which will help to reduce demands on electricity supply.

Patrick Liddy, director of EnerNOC, one of the companies developing such tools, said: “Demand-side response technology is mature [and] provides many benefits for the UK, including engaging heavy energy users such as factories, commercial property and public sector estates in keeping the network balanced. Current UK energy policy was originally written with generation in mind, so it’s only right that now we have the demand-side technology available, [the UK should] evolve our approach.”

The report, entitled The Energy Revolution and Future Challenges for UK Energy and Climate Policy, is the last from the energy and climate change committee. The latter will be dissolved and future reports on energy and climate change will come from the committee that reports on the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

That will mean far fewer parliamentary reports on the UK’s energy and climate change policies than in the past, as the new BEIS committee will have a far broader remit, covering all of the UK’s industry, business and commerce. Past reports, from a cross-party committee of MPs that was until last year chaired by a Conservative former minister, have often criticised government policy.

In the report, the MPs also warn that the risks of Brexit to the UK’s energy supply must be taken into account as a high priority. They highlight, for instance, the risk that collective EU systems will be discarded - for instance, a collective agreement to help any nation at risk from a sudden shortage in gas supply, such as that which might be threatened from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

A spokesperson for BEIS, responding to the committee’s findings, said: “The capacity market ensures that our families have a secure energy supply at a fair price that they can rely on.

“We are fully committed to a low carbon energy future and the potential benefits that new technologies such as storage could bring to this. However, for the capacity market to work effectively it relies on flexible technology that is ready to be deployed”

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