There’s a way to use lots more clean energy AND have power when we need it. And it’s already taking shape.
Sharing, storing and shifting power lets us wave goodbye to giant polluting power plants – and unlock renewable energy’s true potential – whatever the weather.
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Anyone who’s a fan of wind or solar power has heard the argument that “the wind doesn’t always blow” and “the sun doesn’t always shine”. This is called ‘intermittency’.
Some people think this means we’ll always need lots of giant coal, gas or nuclear power stations (sometimes called ‘baseload’) to keep the lights on.
But that’s not really how it works anymore.
A good mix of renewable energy can do the job, even when the wind’s not blowing. Here’s how…
1. WIRE COUNTRIES TOGETHER TO SHARE POWER
Imagine if we could pinch a bit of solar from Spain to keep the scales balanced when we’re low on power.
Well, imagine no more – we’ve already built a few undersea cables called ‘interconnectors’ across to mainland Europe. These allow us to share energy supplies with other countries, and there are plenty more on the way. So if the wind drops in the UK, we can ask our friends over in Denmark to share some of their energy with us.
2. USE GIANT BATTERIES TO STORE POWER
If we can store energy on a large scale, we don’t need the wind to be blowing all the time. And this is already happening – massive batteries are popping up all around the country.
You can even let the grid use your electric car battery while it’s plugged in, helping to balance the scales in exchange for free charging.
But batteries aren’t the only way to store power – there are all sorts of other systems in the works. We don’t know for sure which of these technologies will take off, but because the government has already decided that energy storage is a Big Deal, it’ll soon be as normal as plugging your phone in when you go to bed.
3. SHIFT POWER DEMAND AWAY FROM PEAK TIMES
So far we’ve talked about sharing and storing the energy we produce, but what about the energy we’re using? In the UK, demand for electricity peaks during cold winter evenings, and that’s when the system is really put to the test.
But now we’ve got the technology to control the other side of the scales, shifting some of that demand to times when there’s more spare power. For example, if all the supermarkets in the country agreed to turn their fridges down for a couple of hours during those peak times, it would help balance the scales. And because fridges can hold their temperature for a while, the food stays fresh.
Again, this isn’t theoretical – it’s called ‘demand side response’, and it’s already happening in a few places. And the more demand we can shift, the fewer giant power stations we need.
THE LAST RESORT: FLEXIBLE GAS PLANTS
So now that we’ve shared, stored and shifted our electricity, the scales are looking great! But we still need to be ready for a worst case scenario where we’ve tried everything and the scales still won’t balance. And for those moments we’ll keep a little bit of flexible gas power in reserve to make up the difference. We can even use a technology called ‘power to gas’ to make this process renewable powered too. But either way, once we get those other bits right, this will hardly ever be needed.
Renewable energy is already powering our lives. And now we can share it, store it and shift it to balance the scales, there’s no reason why it can’t keep the lights on.
MORE INFO AND EXAMPLES
More on interconnectors:
Some UK energy storage projects:
Britain’s switch to greener energy will take another significant step forward this week with the opening of an industrial-scale battery site in Sheffield. E.ON said the facility, which is next to an existing power plant and has the equivalent capacity of half a million phone batteries, marked a milestone in its efforts to develop storage for electricity from windfarms, nuclear reactors and gas power stations.
‘Vehicle to grid’ – using electric car batteries to help the grid:
Electric car owners will be paid for letting an energy company use their vehicle’s battery in a pioneering scheme to increase take-up of the cleaner vehicles and help power grids manage the growth in green energy. Nissan and one of the UK’s biggest challenger energy suppliers, Ovo, will offer the “vehicle-to-grid” service to buyers of the Japanese carmaker’s new Leaf from next year.
Battery storage is growing faster than expected:
Storing renewable energy as synthetic oil or gas:
There is no magic in this process. Electrolysis is simple, and increasingly efficient and cheap. Direct removal of CO2 from the air is usually thought of as expensive in energy terms but has been practiced, for example, on submarines for many decades.
Examples of demand side response projects:
Instead of building more power plants and wind farms to meet rising electricity demand, how about moving that demand around during the day so that it’s more evenly distributed and we won’t have to build more plants.
More info on ‘power to gas’:
Wind power has a problem – like all intermittent sources of power it’s hard to store for long periods of time. That means not only can it be ‘lost’ but also if the wind stops blowing for a week or so then we’re forced back to gas.
In depth: the ‘whole system costs’ or renewables:
Dramatic cost reductions mean wind and solar can now compete on price with conventional sources of energy in many parts of the world, including the UK. This turns the spotlight onto the so-called “whole system costs” of integrating renewables into the electricity system, which include backing up intermittent generation and strengthening grids.