Storing Electrical Energy

All energy storage systems return less energy than they receive – the ratio is called the round-trip efficiency – but it’s still worth storing energy when it’s plentiful in order to be able to provide some at times of scarce supply and/or high demand. The value of electricity is particularly high at the instant when demand suddenly surges, or supply from other sources suddenly drops – the ability to generate power at very short notice in these circumstances is especially valuable.

I’ve deliberately not put figures on most of the quantities in this section, because I don’t know them. Nor does anyone else – anyone who gives you the figures is going to be proved wrong eventually. What I can do is give some estimated comparisons. There are certainly people who could give you better estimates – mostly people already involved in the business – but remember that (a) they really are estimates, and (b) people already in the business are likely to have vested interests in a particular technology. Nuclear engineers will underestimate the costs of nuclear systems (possibly by a large factor!) and overestimate costs of renewable systems, for example – but it’s not only nuclear engineers whose estimates you have to take with a pinch of salt!

Thermal Energy Storage

Energy can be stored as a temperature difference between two masses. (It’s not stored simply as heat: it’s the temperature difference that matters.) A system can work between a hot mass and the environment, between the environment and a cold mass, or between a hot mass and a cold mass. (The environment is neither very hot nor very cold, but it does have an enormous mass!)

The economics of such systems are currently not as good as pumped hydro, and probably never will be: the round-trip efficiency is lower, and the initial and ongoing costs are higher, but they can be built anywhere and there’s no practical limit to the possible size of the energy stores (other than what we’re willing to spend on them).

For more information, see Thermal Energy Storage.

Pumped Hydro

Currently, one of the best methods of energy storage is pumped hydro. Water is pumped from a lower reservoir to a higher reservoir to store energy, and energy is retrieved by running the water back down from the higher reservoir through turbines to power generators.

While pumped storage is a very good method of energy storage, with very low ongoing costs, moderate capital costs, and a good round-trip efficiency, the availability of suitable sites puts a limit on the amount of energy that can be stored. With increasing use of intermittent renewable energy sources, we need more storage than will be possible with pumped hydro alone. (This is true for both the UK, and the world as a whole. There are a few countries, such as Norway, with more potential pumped hydro capacity than they need for their own purposes. They can trade with neighbours, but they can’t provide enough capacity for everyone!)

For more information, see Pumped Hydro.

Underwater Compressed Air

Energy can be stored in compressed air anywhere, but to store large quantities of energy in this way requires large air reservoirs, and large volumes of air at high pressure normally require strong – and hence thick and expensive – reservoirs.

By placing variable volume reservoirs deep under water, the requirement for great strength is removed. This is potentially another good method of energy storage, but again it depends on the availability of suitable sites. Worldwide, there are large numbers of suitable sites capable of storing huge amounts of energy – the UK has only a few, but these few might well be worth exploiting.

For more information, see Underwater Compressed Air.

Chemical Energy Storage

Batteries are the obvious example, but stored fuel is also stored chemical energy. That fuel might be primary fuel such as coal or natural gas being stored before its initial use in producing electricity, or it might be synthetic fuel manufactured using electrical energy.

Batteries are very expensive in both capital and ongoing costs. Manufacturing synthetic fuel and then burning it in conventional power stations has a poor round-trip efficiency, but it has two major advantages: enormous storage capacity already exists for such fuel, and it can be used not only in existing power stations, but also in existing heating systems.

For more information, see Chemical Energy Storage.

Siting Energy Storage Facilities

Pumped hydro systems can only be sited where suitable reservoirs exist or can be made; underwater compressed air systems can only be sited where there is deep water. One of the costs that has to be considered in these cases is the cost of connecting the systems to the grid. In some cases, despite the remote locations, suitable connections already exist. For example, Loch Ness has considerable potential as a site for an underwater compressed air system. A 305MW connection already exists to the Foyers Falls pumped hydro system; this connection is not in continuous use (the system can only store 21 hours worth of 305MW). The new system could extend the period over which 305MW could be delivered (or stored) without any upgrade to the connection. (Actually, it would probably be worthwhile to upgrade the connection: the fact the connection already exists indicates that the cost was not exorbitant.)

Thermal energy storage systems can be sited anywhere. One obvious option for large systems is to site them on former nuclear or fossil fuel power station sites: these sites already have suitable connections to the grid, and are already industrial sites, so no new ground is being broken. Another option (probably for somewhat smaller systems in general) is to site them close to large conurbations or large industrial consumers (for load balancing purposes, to reduce the load on their grid connections by spreading the load peaks out), or close to large wind farms or solar farms (for supply balancing).

Recommendations

  1. Pumped hydro should be developed wherever it is feasible and environmentally acceptable.
  2. The feasibility and cost of developing underwater compressed air energy storage should be investigated as a matter of urgency.
  3. Retiring nuclear power stations and some fossil fuel power stations should be replaced with thermal energy storage facilities. This is almost certainly more expensive and less efficient than (1) and probably than (2), but those are both limited by the availability of suitable sites.
  4. Consideration should be given to developing facilities for the production of synthetic fuel using energy from renewable sources.

Renewable Energy Association 2015 report on Energy Storage

Energy Storage in the UK – An Overview