Energy Storage – What’s in Store for Out Electricity Supply

Energy Storage

What exactly is in store for our electricity supply?

Despite the drive to make our homes more energy efficient, the demand for electricity remains strong.  As the traditional generating stations come to the end of their lives and we strive for a lower carbon economy, there is an ever-increasing reliance on renewable sources of power. The costs are coming down, but wind is unpredictable and intermittent and we cannot rely on the sun to provide us with the electricity we demand at the flick of a switch, especially at night.

It looks as though energy storage will need to become an essential part of our electricity supply system if we are to achieve our green goals and keep the lights on. Electricity storage technology can overcome the issues associated with the intermittency of renewables and help to meet the morning and the evening peaks in demand, whether at a domestic, community or national scale.

At present, energy storage capacity in the UK represents a tiny part of our electricity consumption and depends heavily on a few pumped storage hydroelectric facilities. We are otherwise reliant on switching generating stations on and off, or on importing renewable hydropower from Norway to deal with the fluctuations.

Research into battery technology has really taken off. The Government’s January 2017 Industrial Strategy Green Paper (here) states:

Given the UK’s underlying strengths in science and energy technology, we want to be a global leader in battery technology…’

The Government went on to launch a £9 million competition to find ways of reducing the cost of energy storage technologies, including the Faraday Challenge – a £246m commitment up to 2021 on battery development for transport, home and industrial applications.

The costs of storage are reducing as this research progresses.  In its 2016 report to the Renewable Energy Association, The development of decentralised energy and storage systems in the UK, KPMG predicts that there will be a ‘steady cost decline of 12% per annum through to 2020…’ (available here).

At the moment, most of the interest is in lithium-ion batteries and this technology accounted for 83% of installed global storage capacity in 2016 (excluding pumped hydro). The costs continue to fall with close to a 20% reduction in 2016.  Some issues remain with the relatively short life of the batteries and a deterioration in their efficiency as they are cycled through charging and discharging.  The focus could change in the medium term to developments in hydrogen and heat storage that are creating some excitement.

Products are already appearing for domestic use. They are arguably led by Tesla which is building a ‘Gigafactory’ in the US to produce batteries for its vehicles and for other domestic and commercial uses. Once complete, Tesla expects the Gigafactory to be the biggest building in the world, and it will be entirely powered by renewable energy sources. The factory brings an economy of scale that should make batteries more efficient and affordable.

Tesla is already marketing its solar roof tiles and ‘Powerwall’ domestic energy storage systems. These harvest and store electricity produced during the day for use when household demand is greater in the morning, evening and at night.

Smart Meters and Other Smart ways to Control your Energy Use

smart meters

It seems that everything around the house is becoming smart, including heating controls and smart meters, but will these save energy and money and make your home more sustainable?  

Smart heating controls

One way of tackling your energy use is to install a smart thermostat on your boiler. This allows you to control the heating from just about anywhere by using an app on your smartphone or tablet. You can also control the heating in each room individually by using smart radiator valves.

Technology is heading towards smart boilers and integrated heating systems that will incorporate these features and more besides, including the ability to detect faults and alert you to them, as well as allowing an engineer to diagnose and deal with the problem remotely.

Smart meters

Once you have smartened up your heating, you will want to know what savings you are making and a smart meter will help you to do just that. They use built-in wireless technology to automatically send regular gas and electricity usage data to your supplier.  There will be no more visits to read your meter and, theoretically at least, no more inflated or inaccurate estimated readings.

They come with wirelessly connected monitors that show how much energy you are using and translate that into real money.  By switching things on and off, you’ll be able to see where you are using the most energy and the effect of using that app to turn down the boiler! 

Of course the smart meter itself will not save money, but by drawing attention to your rate of energy use the hope is that it will change your behaviour, perhaps persuading you to do a cooler wash or to switch off a few lights when you can actually see the difference that this makes. You will also know what to expect in your next bill, reducing the risk of a nasty surprise.

The Government wants us all to have smart meters by 2020 as part of its push towards low-carbon targets and by September 2017, 8.6 million had been installed.  The programme is being rolled out by the energy suppliers, some more quickly than others, at a cost of  £11.3 billion, with the Government estimating net savings to the country of £7.3 billion. There is no direct outlay for the householder because the costs are being recouped over time through energy bills in general. 

On the downside, smart meters have had some bad press, with fears that the technology is already obsolete, customers experiencing connectivity problems and other difficulties when switching supplier.

So what will I save?

Smart thermostats cost approximately £300 plus installation and smart radiator valves are around £50 each. One supplier claims that they pay for themselves in the first year, but that will depend on the unpredictability of your comings and goings and on your energy usage.

The Government believes that smart meters will encourage energy efficiency and save an average household some £26 per year on their gas and electricity,  approximately 2% of their total bill.