Viewpoint: Storage is key to smart thinking of the future

WORLDWIDE: "Change is on!" This was the response of one original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to a recent DNV GL survey on the future of electricity.

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More than 1,600 people from 71 countries provided their views on a scenario where renewables account for 70% of power-sector generation. The results provide an insight into the energy transition ahead.

It is clear that change is coming. When asked how quickly the transition could be made to a high renewables system in a secure and affordable manner, more than four fifths of respondents expected this could happen by 2050.

Of course, some questioned whether 70% renewables was even achievable. Incumbents such as system operators and integrated utilities were more sceptical than average, and more likely to say that a high renewables future challenged their organisation.

One utility representative commented that clean energy had "taken on the attributes of a religious cult", while an employee of a distribution-system operator feared that there "will be a revolt" due to the cost implications. Yet even among these incumbents, three quarters believed that the transition could be made by 2050.

But what came through most strongly is that a high renewables system would be a game changer, requiring new ways of working. One member of a North American government agency gave a frank ultimatum: "The days of 'monopolised' power are coming to an end... get smarter or get out of the way."

Get smarter

How can the wind industry "get smarter", ready for a high renewables system? Cost reduction remains important, to avoid a backlash from politicians and voters. But increasingly, grid integration matters too.

To some extent, grid integration can be eased through tweaking wind technology itself to provide so-called ancillary services, which are contracted by system operators to support the reliable operation of the transmission system. For instance, wind plant can provide synthetic inertia, whereby a wind-turbine controller allows an increase in power output for a matter of seconds during a change in grid frequency. Plant design and siting decisions can also prove important. But in high renewables scenarios these approaches alone will not be enough.

And this is where the survey's findings become really interesting. Two thirds of respondents ranked energy storage in their top-three most important factors for integrating a high share of renewables, well ahead of options such as smart grids and regulatory changes. One OEM was bold enough to state that a power system with 70% renewables was "science fiction" without storage.

Looking to the wind sector, we already see this enthusiasm for storage bearing through. OEMs and developers are recognising that perhaps the biggest risk to the long-term viability of their business is system integration. They see that there is substantial long-term competitive advantage to be gained by tackling this head-on.

Storage solutions

The industry focus is often on short-duration storage - in the order of seconds to minutes. GE already offers battery applications as part of its "Brilliant" turbine platform, providing ramp control, frequency regulation, and predictable power over periods of 15-60 minutes. Pure-play turbine manufacturers Vestas and Enercon both have pilot projects with lithium-ion batteries. Developers are getting in on the action too - for instance, RES Americas is pursuing the Glacier battery storage pilot in Washington.

There are challenges, of course. What services should storage provide? Should this be done at project level or grid level? And how to ensure cost-competitiveness with alternatives such as demand response? Since larger battery installations have only become available more recently, the wind community is behind the solar PV sector in getting to grips with these issues; survey findings suggest a tendency for respondents to associate storage with PV rather than wind.

But change is on, and it demands a smarter approach as system operation challenges grow. Cult or otherwise, the wind business also needs to get smarter: it needs to engage more deeply with the enabling technologies that will get us to 70% renewables. In the long-term, that includes storage, but even before that, the low-hanging fruit of ancillary services should be reaped. Here there are no significant technical or economic barriers - just that very human habit of doing things the way they have always been done.

Fliss Jones, senior consultant based in Norway, is lead author of DNV GL's survey analysis "Beyond Integration". The report will be available on DNV GL's website.

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