With 2GW of solar deployed during 2014, the UK has found itself host to Europe’s biggest PV market. For solar itself, that tag has been greeted with something close to embarrassment in some quarters, not least by natural gas-hungry politicians who simultaneously cater to nimbyism. The country’s environment, food and rural affairs secretary Liz Truss recently seemed to take an uninformed aesthetics-based anti-solar farm stance to its illogical conclusion, cutting subsidies for farmers who host solar farms on their land.

But against this combative backdrop, the UK government is nonetheless publicly taking steps to encourage the deployment of some distributed generation, including commercial rooftop solar and appointing its first team to look at community energy projects. Meanwhile, the aforementioned grid issues mean that new forms of demand response, including software automated curtailment and ramping of energy use by industry have also been implemented by the National Grid, which oversees electrical grid infrastructure.

The potential for energy storage to be the “missing link” in both accommodating increased distributed generation and protecting the grid has been long talked about, but neither policies nor commercial launches were particularly forthcoming. The latter is now underway, with Germany’s SMA already launching storage-paired and compatible inverters in September and a number of others looking to do the same in a lithium-flavoured wave set to begin in the first quarter of next year. A number of pilot projects at both grid and residential level have already kicked off through the energy regulator and various government departments. However at the top level, as Ray Noble, veteran of the solar industry and a consultant on solar, EVs and now energy storage, told Solar Power Portal, there is “no government policy around energy storage whatsoever”.

Noble, who works with organisations that include the National Solar Centre and the Renewable Energy Association, was among the speakers at an all-day session on energy storage at Solar Energy UK. He says that within the industry, discussions appear to have taken off in earnest, judging by the interest shown at the event.

“I think quite frankly I was surprised by the amount of interest there was in storage. Every session and every other one of the speaker slots that were around exceeded the numbers of seats,” says Ray Noble.

The recurring themes of the day included the various potential uses for storage in the UK’s electricity networks and the difficult question of creating a viable market. Another speaker, Anthony Price, head of the Electricity Storage Network, pointed out that the solar industry’s recognition of the potential of storage was in evidence on the show floor.

“…it’s quite heartening when you walked around [Solar Energy UK] to see a number of different companies who were prepared to put storage with their generation on the same stand,” Price told Solar Power Portal.

“That illustrates a very nice viewpoint that if you can’t make storage work in one sector of the market, then it sure as anything could work somewhere else. Probably seeing storage picked up by the end consumers is a jolly good starting place for it.”

According to Price, the industry does not need to wait around for the government to make storage work, storage technology is already working.

Yet while the technology exists, a clearly defined place where it could all fit in does not. Price says that segmentation of the storage market would be a “useful way of going”. Like energy generation, energy storage means a diverse range of things in different uses and at different scales. 

“Generation comes in all different shapes and sizes and a variety of flavours. You’ve got one extreme, fossil fuels, coal and gas, nuclear, through to renewables, in the same way that with storage we’ve got everything from compressed air, pumped hydro, batteries, concentrated solar thermal and other stuff. Trying to find ways of conveniently segmenting the market is a useful way of going.”

Price had some illuminating views on the specific relationship between solar and storage to offer.

“With solar, we should be looking at what [kind of] storage could work with solar at the very small scale, and does then storage have a role with solar when it gets to slightly larger levels. And of course actually it’s there that you let physics take over. A 10MW or 100MW solar farm doesn’t really need storage alongside it, storage can be anywhere else on the network but what’s important is that you can put large scale solar onto the power system. The mere act of putting solar on is going to affect the operation of that network and one way of mitigating some of the bad actions and improving some of the good actions is to put storage on it.”

Price’s presentation mentioned a number of Low Carbon Network Fund (LCNF) projects, which allow distribution network operators (DNOs) to bid for funding through the national energy regulator, OFGEM, for storage projects.

One of those DNOs is Western Power Distribution. Much of the UK’s recently built solar farms are in the west of England, in counties such as Cornwall, due to an abundance of suitable land. Steven Gough, an innovation and Low Carbon Networks engineer at Western Power Distribution spoke at the event, in a talk on ‘When energy storage will be needed and how to recover the costs’.

As Gough explained, part of LCNF’s task will be to work out not only whether storage devices actually work effectively, but also to assess who should benefit from storage. For example, storage could aid the owner of a power generation system to earn higher rates for electricity if it can be shifted to meet peak demand, while the DNO could use the same device it to aid voltage control across the grid, or subcontract that opportunity, for example.

Earlier this week Next Energy News reported Anthony Price’s firm view that in the UK, the energy storage industry will not enjoy a “gold rush” driven by subsidies. He said that this and successive governments would be too financially constrained for such a thing to happen. Ray Noble broadly agreed, especially with a general election on the horizon in May and with the present government unlikely to green light any wide ranging subsidy schemes in the meantime.

On the other hand, Noble, who acted as the storage event’s chair, speaks of the possibility of support being offered through other means, such as tax breaks for storage systems and their developers. Additionally, it must be said that while the majority of the storage on offer at the UK exhibition in October was concerned mostly with pairing solar and electricity storage, heating and transport clearly also represent a big part of UK energy demand. Whether heat storage paired with solar will be incorporated in existing subsidy schemes for renewable heating, is yet another question of market segmentation and technical and policy definition.

Noble is also convinced that, similar to pilot projects and schemes in other territories including Japan, EVs could be another key driver for storage in the UK. No pun intended. Mass produced batteries could be repurposed in a way that could give the industry a much-needed aid to cost reduction, Noble says. One LCNF project is already examining the possibility of giving Nissan Leaf batteries a “second life”.

“The batteries that are being developed for EVs to give them greater range and things like that, that’s where the motor manufacturers in mass production can drive down the costs very, very, rapidly,” he says.

“So if you could find a use for these batteries, a second use, it’s a way of actually helping the motor industry but also bringing forward storage at a rapid rate. Say you can buy the batteries at half price – that’s the predicted price of batteries for storage in three or four years time – so you could actually gain three or four years experience and start the market going.”