The prospects for a green COVID-19 recovery are getting better with every passing day in the EU, and it seems that the UK is not about to be left behind in the dust. Last week the UK government announced one simple rule change that will speed the construction of large scale energy storage facilities for wind and solar power in England and Wales. It’s just one rule, but the difference is significant because it expands the field of battery technologies to include liquid air and other bulk systems.
This One Weird Energy Storage Trick
If all goes according to plan, the rule change will enable the UK to build more than 100 bulk, long duration energy storage systems in short order, tripling the number currently operating in England and Wales.
High capacity and long duration are essential for the sparkling green grid of the future, and that means new technologies must be shepherded on through. Today’s lithium-ion batteries perform well enough, but they only discharge for a few hours. Meanwhile, grid planners are asking for a full day, or even multiple days, in order to introduce more wind and solar.
Long duration battery technology already exists, but speeding up construction is the key factor considering the urgent need for swift action on climate change and the need to get people back to work on the heels of the COVID-19 outbreak.
In order to get that done, the UK government is lifting restrictions on large-scale batteries of more than 50 megawatts in England and 350 megawatts in Wales.
It wasn’t actually all that simple. The planning process involved months of stakeholder meetings and input beginning last October in addition to procedures in Parliament earlier this month, which amended the Planning Act of 2008 and the Electricity Act of 1989.
The end result is that local planning authorities will get to decide on bulk energy storage projects, instead of having blanket restrictions imposed under rules for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects in England and Wales.
New Bulk Energy Storage Projects On The Horizon
If you’re thinking all of this has something to do with pumped hydro energy storage, that’s a good guess, but not quite. Pumped hydro — aka the “water battery” — is currently the only form of high capacity, long duration energy storage available in many parts of the the world.
However, the new UK energy storage rules carve out an exception for pumped hydro. If you have any thoughts about that, drop a note in the comment thread. Among other reasons, we’re thinking that pumped hydro typically involves a large footprint for constructing new reservoirs, which can conflict with broader interests in preserving open space. One such red flag went up back in 2013, when a new pumped hydro proposal in Wales threatened a popular hiking trail.
Though the prospects for constructing whole fleets of new pumped hydro projects may be dim in the UK, upgrading existing water batteries may be an option.
In the meantime, a 2018 research report underscored the need for alternative battery technologies in the UK.
As of 2018, pumped hydro alone accounted for more than 90% of storage capacity in the UK, mainly thanks to two massive facilities in Wales. The report identified additional sites for new pumped storage facilities, but noted that high costs and local planning were significant obstacles.
Liquid Air To The Rescue
With all this in mind, let’s check out a new 250-megawatt liquid air battery that started construction near Manchester in June, billed as the largest energy storage facility of its kind in the world. Our friends over at The Guardian got an exclusive on the story, so click on that link to support them and get all the details.
For those of you new to the topic, liquid air is just what is says. If you cool air down far enough, it compresses into a liquid. Let it warm up a bit and the volume expands, creating enough pressure to power a turbine.
Of course, all of this cooling and compressing takes an enormous amount of energy, so liquid air energy storage would make no sense in a fossil fuel scenario. However, when there is excess wind or solar power available, liquid air is a handy way to store it.
If Highview rings a bell, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. The Manchester project is first out of the starting block, but the firm has several other projects in the works around the UK. It is also has a liquid air battery on the drawing board for Vermont, in partnership with the US solar developer Encore.
Of interest, the Vermont project is as much about energy transmission as it is about energy storage. Grid planners in Vermont anticipate that the new facility will help relieve a transmission bottleneck in the state, without the need for expensive new transmission lines.
Long Duration Batteries For The Sparkling Green Grid Of The Future
A similar objective is at work in Maine, where planners are exploring ways to cut costs and support the existing grid with energy storage based on green hydrogen. Also known as power-to-gas, green hydrogen involves “splitting” water with an electrical current sourced from wind or solar energy.
That’s a giant sustainability step up from the current practice of steam reforming, which is applied to natural gas for hydrogen production.
Like liquid air, water-splitting (aka electrolysis) is a bulk energy storage technology that makes no sense under a fossil energy scenario. Sub in wind or solar for coal or gas, and the picture shifts.
Aside from providing a workaround for local or regional land-based transmission issues, bulk energy storage can enable renewable energy resource holders to ship excess energy long distances and even overseas.
Denmark, for example, holds far more offshore wind energy resources than its current population can absorb, so it is looking at power-to-gas as a wind power storage and transportation medium.
That’s also the motive behind an emerging concept that deploys renewable energy to make ammonia. Ammonia — aka NH3 — can provide a pathway for transporting green hydrogen in liquid form, as a more economical alternative to transporting hydrogen gas.
The sticky wicket in all of this is cost, but costs have been dropping rapidly. That has caught the eye of at least one legacy fossil energy company, BP. The firm is exploring the green hydrogen-to-ammonia pathway in collaboration with energy planners in Australia, who are eyeballing it for export to markets in Asia.
Stay tuned for more on that. Meanwhile, the US Department of Energy is all over high capacity, long duration energy storage like white on rice. The agency is pumping research dollars into something called “falling particles” and all sorts of other new fangled batteries that can last for at least 10 days, so stay tuned for more on that, too.
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Image (screenshot): Liquid air battery courtesy of Highview Power via YouTube.