The power of batteries: driving the future of renewable energy

The renewable energy market is a buoyant one. While investment in wind, solar and other renewable energy sources slumped by 56% to £7.5bn in the UK in 2017, worldwide spending climbed 3% to £242.4bn, the second-highest level on record. The merits of using renewable energy sources are increasingly recognised: reduced air pollution including CFC emissions which cause global warming and contribute to chronic health conditions, decrease dependence on the finite resources of traditional fossil fuels by diversifying the origins of our power supply, and it’s renewable, meaning that it will be limitless in its supply. But in order to maximise the opportunity of renewable sources, the batteries that we use to store the renewable energy will need to improve at the same rate as renewable technology.

One of the main challenges traditionally associated with renewable energy sources is that they fluctuate – we can’t control when the sun shines or when the wind blows, making it hard to operate the electrical grid when wind and solar resources are in short supply. And the more renewables you have, the bigger this problem can be. To maintain our supply of electricity, we need a system that meets the highest levels of demand. This requires a method of storing energy when renewable energy or conventional forms of energy are lost.

The start of reliable renewable energy

That’s where batteries come in. Batteries convert electricity into chemical potential energy for storage and back into electrical energy, when required. And so, they are used on the electric grid to store surplus energy generated during periods of low demand, and release it during periods of high demand, alleviating the issue of variability.

A floating solar farm at Godley reservoir in Hyde, Manchester.

Despite the recognised benefits, batteries aren’t part of the mainstream power system yet due to limitations including performance and safety issues, regulatory compliance and cost. Researchers across the globe are trying to develop more effective, safe and economical batteries that can store energy on a large scale. They are manipulating chemicals and experimenting with new ones, trying to improve the scale of batteries, the duration of their discharge, efficiency, response time, sustainability and cost, as well as addressing safety issues.

Some of our clients are involved in Lithium-ion (Li-on) battery development, which is an area of much technological research in the renewable energy market. Li-on batteries are a major contender for renewable energy storage technology, taking an estimated 66% of global operational energy storage. Most electric vehicles today use Li-on batteries, as do most smartphones, tablets and laptops.

Alternative battery technologies include flow batteries, which use chemicals dissolved in water, and are recognised for their reliable duration storage. That means they can help utility companies meet consumer needs for longer periods during peak demand times. The main concern with flow batteries has been their high cost. However, researchers at Harvard University have developed a new flow battery that could run for more than a decade, and offers the potential to significantly drive down the cost of production. Grid-scale storage for renewables could be revolutionary – making wind and solar both economical and reliable.

What lies ahead?

Cost reduction trends in battery innovation are predicted to continue, and Innovate UK anticipates that, as a result, we could see the old economies of scale being turned upside down so that generating and using energy locally will represent better value than generating power in relatively few, large, centralised locations.

The search for a solid-state battery that’s safe and can store more energy is what grids, electric cars and the world needs if it is to run on renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels. The race is on to find out who can do it most reliably and at a cost the market will accept.

If you would like to find out more on how we help our clients communicate their technologies, please get in touch.

By Katie Hall, Junior Account Executive at The Scott Partnership.