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5 December 2019

Drax the polluter, giving lessons in how to work with renewables

Having just read several thousand words written on behalf of Drax, by two Imperial College professors, under the title “Drax electric Insights” we are none the wiser about its claim that the UK may need as many as 30 GW of energy storage capacity. It might, and it might not, what’s your point exactly?

The report says nothing about it apart from that bald line, energy storage may need to go from 3 GW today to 30 GW in the future. There is no timeline, no calculations, no basis for that precise amount. It is just dangles as a prohibitive hurdle or “cost.”

Today there are two reasons to install energy storage – to support grid stability, under sub-contract to the National Grid (a minor role), and to smooth out intermittent renewables (its main role). Typically energy storage is more often associated with solar panels, not only because they both work in Direct Current, and wind farms work in AC, but also because in order to not find solar curtailed (switched off from grid provision) solar has to make up for at least 12 hours in every 24 hour cycle when they cannot produce any energy at all.

The paper begins by talking in great detail about the events leading up to the August 9th UK electricity blackout, which led to 1.1 million homes being cut off from electricity, and part of the rail network closing down. Rule number one, sow fear uncertainty and doubt before you make your main point.

Essentially it was a relatively small amount of battery power that made the incident last just a few seconds for many, and then a lot of either poorly performing gas generation equipment, or poorly configured grid connections that took more assets offline, and it asks the question – do we need more protection. This is a question that the paper completely fails to answer, except in as far as it says “How long is a piece of string,” and just how reliable do you need a grid to be, and that there is a price, roughly the £380 million that the National Grid spends each year on response and reserve services, which it recharges to generators and retailers. It limply concludes that you could spend more, but why?

Then it points out that with an increasingly intermittent generation capability, as wind and solar grows, it might be wise to have more batteries. But the paper does not point out that many of these capabilities work in very different ways. Solar tends to be sold to a local distributor or better still, through a power purchasing agreement, to a local company, so that this customer can still call on the grid for any energy not supplied by the solar farm. In some cases this entirely bypasses the need for that electricity to go through the grid.

Where wind farms are being built offshore, they offer a varying power output, but not one which switches off at night, it just varies between two limits (high output and low output) during a 24 hour cycle. Given that the energy they produce either leaves the sea, onto shore and plugs into the grid, or it can be used by some kind of floating chemical plant (for instance turning excess energy into hydrogen) – wind still benefits from the smoothing effects of a battery when it is applied to the grid. This is more complicated because the AC energy of wind needs to come ashore, and when not going straight into the grid, switch through an inverter into DC, and go to top up batteries. And in return those batteries can output electricity when the wind farm is producing less than the grid needs, again through an inverter.

As there are more battery projects out there, then as the price to use these services will come down. The National Grid can indeed contract with more batteries to get even more security cover, probably for not much more than it is paying today, in the event of another lightning strike in rush hour in the future.

Is it because there is fresh data out this week from RenewableUK, which points out that planning applications for energy storage has gone up in the past year from 6.9 GW to over 10.5 GW? Well if it is then all of these battery projects will become available to contract with The National Grid for grid stabilization – and it could pick the best of them or the cheapest or both, once built. Job done. A battery can be used for multiple purposes at once, and can always promise to be used for grid stability when called upon.

We have to remember who is commissioning this work, it is Drax, a coal and wood burning polluter, which has attempted to use carbon capture and failed, which has just been granted permission from the Conservative government to build another top of the range gas turbine. Drax is right up there with Rex Tillerson (ex-ExxonMobil and US Secretary of State up to 2018), as part of the fossil fuel addicted, axis of evil that seems to preach denial stories. Why these two academics would lend their names to a company with this track record, we have no idea.

Dr Iain Staffell of Imperial College London said, “Energy storage is one of the most important issues in the energy industry – it has the potential to dictate the pace, scale and cost of the energy transition. Along with other technologies, such as interconnection and flexible generation, energy storage helps integrate more renewables onto the system, which makes it easier to manage the grid and enables greater de-carbonisation at lowest cost.” So he is clearly not entirely in the pocket of Drax, but the overall message is “Watch out for renewables, they are not as cheap as you think, because all this other stuff has to be in place to make them work.” With the corollary that companies like Drax will be around polluting the planet for a long time to come.

The extent to which there was any calculation, it was that “As the share of wind and solar power rises towards 80% of electricity supplied, every extra unit of intermittent renewables will require 1 unit of energy storage.”

This is of course nonsense, and in a way, it is scare mongering, and it mentally lifts the price of renewables to something over double what they are today. Another idea, the one that says Lithium Ion batteries are only part of the mix and not likely to ever become the dominant part, is also left loitering in the paper – with suggestions that pumped hydro storage is the best way of doing things, despite the fact that it takes ten years minimum to get a new facility permitted.

The biggest challenge the paper raised, and one we entirely agree with is that during the winter the UK uses a lot more energy than during the summer months, and that this will get a lot worse once we move off using natural gas in the boiler of each home. The winter provision of electricity will need to go way beyond the 4 or 8 or 12 hour battery provisions, and that means working with an efficient way to store energy, using potential energy – pumped hydro, lifting weights or chemical – hydrogen stores – and that this cannot be left to Lithium Ion (we agree). But it can also be achieved using an over-supply of both batteries and renewables, so that some are always charging to be used every day throughout winter.

The paper slips in the idea of not in fact shifting from natural gas to electricity for heating UK homes, but to slowly increase the amount of hydrogen in the natural gas, to dilute its CO2 emissions, and to slowly do this over 30 years, so that the gas industry has time to adjust. There are experiments to look into this around the world, one in the UK, and it’s not dumb, but it still serves a fossil fuel agenda.