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Electricity storage: beyond the battery

For some time now the government has been urged to support the development of technology to store electricity. To achieve this three things need to be established

  1. How much electricity storage we will need as a nation.
  2. Policy frameworks that will incentivise investment in the technology
  3. Support to help the UK become a world-leader in electricity storage technologies.

Currently we don’t store that much electricity in the UK, but with renewable energy playing a greater part in our national fuel mix, we will need to be able to store more energy in the future, because technologies like solar and wind are intermittent sources of generation and thereby produce more electricity at some times than others and not necessarily in the same pattern as demand. Storage therefore becomes essential to prevent wasted energy production.

Not only would this smooth out supply and demand discrepancies, but also the ability to store more electricity should make renewable energy technology more cost-efficient by ensuring we can use more of the power generated, lead to potentially reduced energy prices. There is a ‘but’ however, developing and implementing this technology will come at a cost, and that cost will necessarily be borne by the customer. How much that will offset the gains in efficiency’s impact on cost remains to be seen.

Small-scale electricity storage could also be very useful for businesses that are generating their own energy, whereas current technology enables the choice of ‘use’ or spill over to the grid in exchange for cash, the new world would widen this to allow the choice between ‘use’ and storage, then allowing the spill back or future use to be done at the most advantageous time and of course price.

Most of us probably believe that the only way to store electricity is in a battery, but there are actually a lot more options, including:

  • Pumped hydro-electricity storage, The electricity is used to pump water to a higher level, where the water can then be released through a turbine later on to effectively recreate the energy stored; Clearly this requires a large space to achieve!
  • Compressed-air energy storage, Similarly to pumped hydro but using pressurise air instead which is stored underground in tanks or salt caves, or underwater in bags to be released later to recreate the electricity;
  • Cryogenic energy storage, Another spin on this idea, pardon the pun, is where the electricity is used to liquefy air that is then stored as cryogen which can be recovered later as electricity using a turbine;
  • Flywheels, which store electricity as kinetic energy;

It’s a tantalising prospect that opens up the potential for the dependence on and natural inefficiencies in electricity production and use to be turned on its head to provide both a more efficient, cost effective and profitable solution for people, businesses and nations.

No wonder the government is being pushed for action.

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