Andrew Hughes, land manager at Intelligent Land Investments Group, notes: “We believe energy storage will have to play a large part in bridging this gap, with pumped-storage hydro being the only proven technology that can be deployed at a scale required.”
In addition, investment in utility-scale batteries is crucial to help stabilise the supply of intermittent wind and solar power. There is already around 500MW of grid-scale battery storage in operation around the UK, which could rise to 9,000MW in five years’ time, according to Solar Media’s report, UK Battery Storage: Opportunities & Market Entry Strategies for 2018 – 2022.
In practice, it’s probable that neither wind nor solar power would be sufficient to fill the gap. There would still be a need for a transitional source of power or bridging fuel, such as natural gas or imported liquefied natural gas (LNG). “It’s expected that gas will need to form part of the energy mix through to 2050, although energy storage is crucial in the energy mix to achieve the net-zero goal,” says Hughes.
In the above context, the elephant in the room is, of course, shale gas, which has transformed the US economy, and with which the UK is well endowed. Jim Ratcliffe, owner of chemical giant Ineos, warns that the government is “betting the future of our manufacturing industry on windmills and imported gas”.
One thing is clear: gas power, together with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, would make a substantial and durable contribution to the UK’s power needs. However, developing CCS technology so that it’s viable for power stations has, to date, eluded us. Despite 20 years of government support, this technology currently remains too expensive for common use and would require subsidies. George Day, head of policy and regulation at the government-funded Energy Systems Catapult, observes that gas power stations with CCS still look “pretty promising” but significant policy changes will be needed to enable firms to invest in them.
The price of power
For electricity customers, nuclear power proved a costly choice under the government’s contract with EDF. “A non-nuclear future will mean cheaper electricity for consumers than buying nuclear power,” says Cox. This opinion is echoed by CLS Energy’s Asbury, who points out: “Renewable electricity technologies will be subsidy-free from the end March 2019. Meanwhile, the wholesale prices for nuclear agreed for the first of three [Hinkley Point C] were twice current rates. Pledges to ensure the taxpayer would not pay have already been broken.
“Renewable energy is significantly cheaper than nuclear in delivering electricity. Its intermittency can be controlled through pumped, chemical, or mechanical storage.”
In addition, the cost of renewable projects continues to tumble, and fears over the intermittency of clean energy are steadily being addressed by the growth of gas-peaking plants, pumped-storage hydro, utility-scale batteries, and the emergence of smart grid technologies. As Doug Parr, chief scientist and policy director at Greenpeace, states: “Renewable power can deliver the electricity we need. It needs a fraction of the political and financial backing that is being given to the nuclear industry.”
The future of demand
Despite significant investment in energy-efficiency savings, the demand for power will increase substantially with the growing trend for electrification of transport, including rail, buses and cars. According to Hughes: “Electricity demand may be expected to increase with the shift to EVs, and this could increase a household’s energy demand by up to 50%.”
However, Cox suggests: “Future overall demand for power might not increase as much as predicted by some, since it will depend on how car-ownership levels change and the impact of increased efficiency by home and industrial users on power demand.”
It appears investment in renewable energy, grid-scale energy storage and gas plants equipped with CCS, alongside energy-efficiency measures could meet Britain’s demand for power and deliver a carbon-free economy by mid-century. The government has some urgent decisions to make.