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Opinion piece by Karl Ove Ingebrigtsen, Director, Low Carbon Power Generation, Lloyd’s Register

The surprise news that the cost of offshore wind power in the UK has halved from 2015 levels has been welcomed by the renewables sector and environmental advocates alike. In the latest round, CfDs were awarded to Innogy (Triton Knoll), EDPR (Moray East) and DONG Energy, whose Hornsea 2 will become the world’s largest windfarm when it produces first power in 2022-23. At the same time, downward pressure on oil prices continues to accelerate the interest of oil and gas majors in renewable energy – which in turn has driven greater investment in development of technology.

Unsurprisingly, cost has traditionally been one of the most significant barriers to innovation development; and certainly it is still a key factor. However, successful collaborations between industry, regulators, academics and policy makers have led to increased standardisation which has in turn reduced the cost – and risk – of innovation and deployment. It seems at last there is recognition globally that future growth and cost competitiveness of renewables relies on the continued development and deployment of innovative technologies. So what’s next?

Well that depends on how decisions are made today on energy storage and management. While the proportion of renewables as part of the energy mix continues to rise, so too are the technologies being prototyped and qualified for mainstream commercial use to support the sustainability of power grids.

And, while such developments mean that a country’s power generation portfolio is becoming less carbon intense, the intermittent nature of renewables like wind and solar represents a major challenge for the transmission and distribution companies that are tasked with maintaining a stable voltage and frequency across a network often in response to wildly fluctuating supply and demand, and against variable and changing weather conditions.

Transforming the power generation industry – a challenge and opportunity

We are on the cusp of major change across the energy mix. From large MW turbines to batteries to grid software to further advances in PV cell design – renewable energy is on a fast track path to the next level in terms of lowering energy costs and providing cleaner, carbon-free energy.

One critical transformation taking shape is energy storage – the holy grail for renewable energy advocates and climate change campaigners as it would help wind and solar farms match conventional power sources. Growing numbers of companies are starting to sell storage systems. Japan and the U.S. are global leaders in the use of battery storage, with China and Germany close behind. India, Italy and South Korea are also implementing battery storage. It is a game-changer for the way the power system works in the market.

RES (Renewable Energy Systems), a UK-based company that builds wind and solar farms around the world, is already a leading storage supplier in the US but it has successfully completed its first UK-based industrial-scale battery storage facility at a 1.5MW solar park south of Glastonbury, in Somerset (UK).

Norwegian gas and oil group Statoil, is installing what is believed to be the world’s first offshore wind farm battery system at the Hywind floating turbine project off the coast of Scotland. Dubbed “Batwind”, it will have the capacity of more than 2m iPhones, and is still potentially transformative if adopted widely by the fast-growing offshore wind industry.

 

Breaking the seal of innovation is a good thing to make progress

Companies such as Nissan Europe have been pushing the boundaries of the lithium batteries in terms of performance, durability, and cost, to achieve a level at which lithium batteries become a physical and a realistic alternative to provide flexibility in the grid.

While it is likely we will see lithium-based technology as the major system for the next decade, a huge number of alternatives are also under consideration and being researched to improve performance and cost characteristics including Lithium-air battery (Li-Air), Magnesium-ion (Mg-ion), Sodium-ion (Na-ion) and Lithium-sulfur (Li-S).. So too are alternative storage mechanisms such as flywheels, compressed air and electrolysis/fuel cell systems.

However, barriers have to be overcome before battery storage is fully integrated as a mainstream option in the power sector. These include performance and safety issues, regulatory barriers, and utility acceptance. Nevertheless, recent developments have demonstrated that these barriers can be and, in many instances, are being overcome.

Some examples of new batteries being developed include Japan's dual carbon battery that charges 20 times faster than ordinary lithium-ion batteries with comparable energy density, doesn't heat up and is fully recyclable. Researchers at Stanford University are using nanotechnology in a pure lithium battery to hopefully triple the energy density and decrease the cost four-fold. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, lithium ions have been replaced with magnesium ions, which can move twice as many electrons; this allows the battery to be recharged more times before degrading. The Joint Center for Energy Research at Argonne National Laboratory is researching technologies other than lithium-ion that can store five times more energy at one-fifth the cost.

What is triggering technology development?

Innovation is becoming faster, wider and deeper – and it’s happening across the supply chain. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, annual battery storage capacity is expected to grow from 360MW to 14GW between 2014 and 2023. With so many striving for a significant battery breakthrough, more economies of scale and improved manufacturing processes, the world just might see a $100 per kWh battery within the next few years.

The issue that is challenging grid operators is in maintaining the security system right now. One new development is the integration of software technologies and tools to allow for remote tracking, control and management of battery storage systems. With up to date information about wind and sun forecasts, the charging level, expected electricity demand and information about the state of charge of other battery systems, it is possible to optimise and create intelligent demand and supply assets to manage load. Combine this approach with High Voltage Direct Current technology and we could also be looking at a solution to a missing link on how to transport renewable energy from region to region – and the world is going to need more renewable power over the next 25 years. By 2040, we will need 48 percent more energy to satisfy demand, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Looking ahead – political and industrial strategy unity is back in vogue

It’s not that the pace of innovation is too slow. Far from it! The energy sector is undergoing a fundamental shift towards more distributed, low-carbon, flexible power generation sources which will in turn lower the costs of renewables, and increasingly shape the space for other power sources.

The big commitment to decarbonise society is becoming stronger the world over. We can see this evolution gathering pace amongst our own customers with the onset of new government initiatives and increasing consumer demand for cleaner, zero emissions energy in transport and in homes. But confidence in renewable integration will depend on the creation of an appropriate decentralised energy ecosystem with significant interplay between energy policy, regulation, business models, and consumers.

To do this successfully, systems are needed for the long term consideration and ‘health’ of energy investment which provide resilience, reliability and energy optimisation – these are all factors that for any country need to be discussed today for their energy solutions of tomorrow. We can meet our 2030 carbon targets but only if there is full commitment of all political and industrial partners to renewables and energy efficiency.