Are batteries and fuel cells the fifth element?

Energy solutions have again hit the headlines with the announcement that energy from offshore wind in the UK is to become cheaper than electricity from new nuclear power. The figures for offshore wind, from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, showed two firms were willing to build offshore wind farms for a guaranteed price of £57.50 per megawatt hour for 2022-23. This compares with the new Hinkley Point C nuclear plant of £92.50 per megawatt hour. Experts warn that in order to meet the UK's long term climate goals, additional sources of low-carbon energy will still be needed. Could batteries provide a solution?

Technologically we have gone full circle with batteries. Alessandro Volta invented the first battery in 1800 and his invention was seen at the time as the main source of electricity until the invention of electric generators. Battery advancement has been relatively slow and it may surprise you to learn that Zinc Carbon and Nickel Cadmium batteries first saw the light of day in the 19th century. The reason being electricity has been relatively cheap and abundant in the industrialised world so there hasn’t been the impetus to create a battery with a greater electro chemical potential and weight ratio until the eponymous mobile phone was invented. Now there is a clamour for new super batteries that can be repeatedly charged and discharged and offering more life than previous battery systems and at much higher currents enabling shorter charging times.

Lithium ion batteries are currently the backbone of most products on the market be they telecommunications or automotive but there are new energy storage solutions on the horizon. Work is being undertaken around the world right now working on systems that utilise Graphene and ceramics. Additionally, with Germany, Sweden, Denmark, France and the UK supporting the Hi-C project which has already determined that newly discovered stone salts can effectively double the capacity of lithium batteries the gap in research between Volta’s original battery and those proposed now is certainly widening and it has only taken 217 years.

Batteries are the solution for many issues we face.

With such advancement in battery technology, their use is extending beyond traditional applications (eg provision of ‘off-grid’ power) to more innovative applications relating to energy storage, such as:

  • Wind farms - Naysayers scorned offshore wind was an expensive folly but in a few short years’ the efficiencies the industry has realised are impressive. But supply and demand still need to be better managed. When the wind blows and energy demand is low there is the potential of turning some turbines off or managing the trim of the blades to reduce output, but this is crazy economics. When the wind isn’t blowing they can’t generate any revenue – again crazy economics. The obvious answer is to utilise the available power when the wind blows and put it in energy storage for later when the wind doesn’t blow, just like a traditional harvest.
  • Voltage volatility - Energy storage technology is already aiding voltage volatility control, which is a real issue for manufacturing in the UK. Voltage from the utility providers varies nationally and regionally, and overall tends to be higher than the prescribed 240 volts. This results in equipment overheating and shutting down and in relation to electric motors dramatically reduces life expectancy but most importantly adds to the cost of electricity and you could end up paying up to 20 per cent more than necessary. Hitherto a factory would install a substation to drop the voltage but a battery storage system can optimise voltage for the user and protect against surges and brownouts but also take on board cheap electricity during the night or when the grid is in surplus and call upon its own battery reserves and alleviate the pressure on the grid during peak demand. A win win if ever there was one.

Batteries will change markets

Energy storage in batteries and fuel cells is going to be the keystone to everything in the future and is likely to impact most sectors from power generation, power distribution, manufacturing/construction, to real estate. One business that intends to be ahead of the game is Drax which has announced its intention to build a 200MW battery storage complex to enable a proactive capability to enhance the UK’s energy mix.

The questions for business leaders are: How sensitive is your business/organisation to energy prices? Are you investing, building or using infrastructure which could be made redundant through improved energy storage technology and applications? Is your business/organisation ready to embrace energy storage technology and gain competitive advantage?

For further information on how RSM can help your infrastructure business please contact Phil WithersAndy Murray or Alistair Hynd.