An expert report published this week by the left-leaning Jimmy Reid Foundation calls for a “radical rethink” by the Scottish government. It should adopt “a much more ambitious strategy” on energy storage to create jobs, wealth and exports, the report says.
The idea has been backed by a leading Scottish Nationalist, the renewables industry and environmentalists. The Scottish government accepts that the opportunities for energy storage will be “a key part of our future low carbon heat supply”.
Electricity supply and demand fluctuate, and one of the challenges for managers of the national grid is to try and keep them matched. One solution is to store more power that can be tapped when needed.
This is already done with pumped storage schemes like that at Ben Cruachan in Argyll, where water is pumped uphill by surplus electricity and then allowed to run down again to generate power when it’s required.
The new report is now proposing a £1.5bn investment to create 5,000 jobs in a major new energy storage industry. “In the medium term, energy storage will be a fundamental component of our energy system,” it says. “Delaying the transition to that energy system would appear to be both short-sighted and lacking in ambition.”
Improved energy storage would also help avoid one of the more bizarre anomalies of the current regime, which pays power producers not to supply power when there’s too much available. Between April and September last year, coal, gas, hydro and wind generators in the UK were together given £161 million in “constraint” payments as compensation for not producing electricity.
The most promising new energy storage technology involves using surplus power to extract nitrogen from the air. The gas is cooled it to below minus 190 degrees centigrade to turn it into a liquid.
The liquid, which is much smaller in volume than the gas, is then stored in a large vacuum flask. When power is needed, it is allowed to warm up again and the expanding gas used to drive a turbine to generate electricity.
According to the report’s author, Brian Richardson, the director of sustainability at the Glasgow firm, GreeningtheMarket, liquid air is the “leading contender” of several emerging energy storage technologies. “The Scottish government needs to recognise and grasp the opportunity for Scotland to become a global player in a very large emerging energy storage market,” he said.
Joan McAlpine MSP, the First Minister Alex Salmond’s parliamentary aide, warmly commended Richardson’s report. “It is absolutely crucial that we capitalise on this huge potential by becoming a world leader in energy storage technologies,” she said.
“Energy storage has the potential to create thousands of jobs and be a great boost for the economy in Scotland. It is vital that we grasp this opportunity and I believe this report will be an important factor in driving forward the agenda.”
The renewables industry pointed out that storing electricity from wind farms could help them be more effective in meeting peaks in demand. “Liquid air storage is a key area for research and an interesting idea that could complement existing plans in Scotland for pumped hydro schemes,” said Joss Blamire, senior policy manager for the industry association, Scottish Renewables.
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “Investing in a range of storage technologies is a no-brainer because it will hasten the day when we can turn off the last fossil and nuclear power stations in Scotland, as well as creating jobs and export potential for Scotland.”
The Scottish government agreed that energy storage, including liquid air, could play an important role in developing a low carbon economy. It has been working with experts to consider the options and impacts.
“We will also publish our draft heat generation policy statement for consultation early this year which will set out Scotland’s ambition for a largely decarbonised heat sector by 2050,” said a government spokeswoman. “The opportunities for energy storage will be a key part of our future low carbon heat supply and we are keen to work with stakeholders to develop this sector.”
The report from the Jimmy Reid Foundation an be downloaded here (193KB pdf).