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Is energy storage about to go mainstream?

Is energy storage for renewables about to go mainstream?

•    Solar power driving battery interest
•    Germany, Australia, islands lead way
•    Storage could aid energy connectivity

With one of the UK's biggest ever energy storage events taking place at Twickenham Stadium at the end of April, it looks like batteries could be about to go big. We spoke to Andy Colthorpe from Solar Media's Energy Storage News about what's on the horizon for storage in the UK and abroad – and how to overcome some of the barriers to take-up of this emerging technology. 

While it's not simple enough to be able to say that energy storage will make a mainstream breakthrough in the next few years, one thing that most agree on is that renewables are going to be a major driver in the roll-out of storage – and in particular, solar PV

Colthorpe said: “Most people support solar power, but the doubt that keeps coming up is about the ability to use all the energy it generates. Using high-quality batteries to store the energy could be the 'silver bullet' here, but it's a bit more complicated than that. There are some storage concepts working right now, some that will be in the near future, and some for further down the line.”

Helping the energy-isolated

He points to a range of trailblazers in energy storage, with tropical islands at the forefront:

“Islands like Hawaii and Puerto Rico have traditionally had to import power, at great cost. Combining solar with storage reduces those costs, and provides access to their own, secure supply. These are often places, too, at the front line of climate change. 

“Somewhat ironically, industrial users such as at coal mines and oil fields are also investing in solar power and energy storage, as well as tankers and the shipping industry.”

Playing catch-up

Nearer to home, there are still some significant barriers to be overcome. Colthorpe sets the scene:

“There has been an exponential drop in the cost of solar, and while energy storage is still expensive, that is now plummeting too. 

“But using batteries for storage is a newer energy management approach than the existing grid, so technically and legislatively, things are having to catch up. Banks and financiers are still getting used to the sector, and the government is quickly trying to learn as much as possible.” 

FiT for service?

How governments choose to support the renewable energy sector in the coming years is going to be important – but incentives are not necessarily going to be the deal-breaker, suggests Colthorpe. He cites some international examples where cuts to Feed-in Tariffs have resulted in a refocusing of attention onto using solar electricity on-site. He said:

“Germany is the world leader for solar installations. The Feed-in Tariff has reduced there, and the number of solar installations has fallen. But the number of systems being installed with energy storage is going up. So it's still practically attractive, and breathing new life into the industry.

“Likewise, in Australia, financial support has been cut, but people are moving towards storing what they generate.”


Tapping the retrofit market

The UK's own solar boom does seem to be curtailing in the midst of cuts to tariff rates. But here too, there is potential for storage to flourish, given the right conditions. Colthorpe explained:

“The next couple of years are going to be pivotal. A lot will depend on how storage is treated by regulation. There's huge potential in the UK retrofit market, with upwards of 750,000 solar PV installations. Those with solar already installed have already benefited from payments for generating power – now it's about using what's generated.

“It's more about saving money than making money. Fewer cheques through the post, more savings on the cost of electricity and insuring yourself against future price rises.” 

Joined-up thinking

Power in numbers could prove to be a way of providing financial support for energy storage, in a symbiotic relationship with the local grid. Connected home storage systems, for example in a housing development, could be used as an asset for grid energy management. Colthorpe points to another example from Germany:

“Home owners are paid to use their battery to support the grid. This not only reduces costs to the network overall but can help integrate more renewables. This type of relationship can be a way of paying for the initial investment in an energy storage system.”

Keeping the industry honest

No two energy storage systems are the same, so for the roll-out of technologies into homes and businesses to be a success, building public trust is going to be key. BRE was one of the first organisations to make headway on this, producing consumer and installer guides on storage. Colthorpe said:

“There needs to be an avoidance of mis-selling – which means both total honesty and installers being fully educated about just what systems can do. Take the suggestion that systems could provide back-up power in the case of a power cut. Some can do this, but is differs from system to system. 

“Most batteries sold in the UK won't be able to give you two days' power – they're just not big enough. This has to be explained to the public.”

All technologies have their limitations, so this is unlikely to spell the death knell for energy storage before it's really begun to take hold. While batteries are hardly the 'plug and play' solution for energy issues in every setting, they offer some solid advantages for those who have invested in green energy already. Colthorpe adds:

“What storage is very good at is allowing you to self-consume the energy you generate, maximising the effectiveness of what renewables can do. Crucially, it can also offer a measure of independence from the Big Six.” 

Share your thoughts with us in the comments below or tweet us at @energysvgtrust.

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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