Opinion: From constraint to storage – how we get there and why we need to do it now

Wind farm owners are paid millions not to operate at full capacity: we need better storage, argues Dave Pell

Stop paying for constraint and start investing in storage, says Dave Pell
Stop paying for constraint and start investing in storage, says Dave Pell

As the Ukraine crisis continues, the wind sector has a vital role to play in boosting the UK’s energy security and reducing reliance on foreign energy imports. But we can’t realise its full potential unless we address the significant undersupply of energy storage capacity.

There is new urgency to the situation. The government recently announced that it would phase out Russian oil by 2023 and explore ending gas imports. Driving up domestic wind power production is absolutely essential to help plug the gap. Proposals to relax permitting rules for new onshore wind farms are a step in the right direction, but so far energy storage hasn’t been a major part of the conversation. If we want to maximise energy supply from wind production, especially from new sites, then it needs to be.

Better storage facilities help even out fluctuations in power generation – caused by changing weather conditions for example – and enable better regulation of the flow of power into the grid. But we simply don’t have enough of them currently.

Aurora Energy Research found that 24GW of long duration electricity storage could be needed in Britain to integrate wind power into a secure net zero electricity system in the future – that’s eight times the current installed capacity. So what is holding the sector back? Crucially we need to look at how funding is deployed, moving towards a model where investment is more directly focused on developing new storage technologies and getting facilities built.

Smarter use of funding

One of the biggest barriers to achieving a step change in wind output is shifting the sector away from the constraint payments made to wind farms not to operate to avoid overwhelming the grid. A report published this spring found that three Scottish wind farms were paid £24.5 million (€29.3 million) not to generate about half of their potential output in 2020. That model isn’t sustainable if we want to drive up wind as a proportion of the UK’s energy mix.

The problem is that the payments will likely be factored into some operators’ business models and it’s thanks to these kinds of subsidies that the sector has been able to get to where it is today. It’s now time, however, to move past them. Government and businesses must have the conversation about how we reach the next stage and target this money in a smarter way – switching the emphasis from constraint to storage and putting wind at the center of supply security.

Driving the development of emerging storage technologies is key. The tragic events in Ukraine and their implications for the UK’s energy position should mean there is fresh appetite from policymakers to look at how investment can be re-directed. Nearly £7 million in government funding was recently announced to support projects working on energy storage technologies but we need to go further.

A market for manufacturers

Showing there is real demand for energy storage will encourage manufacturers to dedicate production and research and development (R&D) budget to the sector – especially among battery cell manufacturers who have typically weighted their businesses toward electric vehicles. Making storage part of permitting consents for new sites will drive growth and demonstrate that there is a market for products.

As well as the storage technologies themselves, there must also be a focus on storage management systems. Wind generation naturally comes with fluctuations in supply. Many battery chemistries currently struggle to cope with the charging fatigue that this causes, so we need to develop and build in systems which can manage things like overcharging of individual cells.

The path forward

Countries across Europe have turned their attention to energy security in a way they never have before. Ukraine is a wake up call for the UK to look again at the potential the wind sector holds and how we can maximise its output to meet our domestic power needs. Energy storage is the missing piece of the puzzle.

If we are to fully benefit from what energy storage can provide for wind, we need to think long term about optimising systems in terms of both their technology and integration into the network. By redirecting constraint payments and investing now, we can achieve a net zero energy mix and crucially, independence in times of international turmoil.

Dave Pell is the director of AMTE Power

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