The Energy Storage Prize

This was a prize fund of £10 million aimed at focusing development in order to solve our energy storage problems as well as raising awareness about this pressing issue. This would save a lot of wasted energy from conventional sources (nuclear and fossil fuels) as well as making renewable energy a major player in our energy portfolio.

In 2005 it occurred to me that the problem with renewable energy was not that we could not generate it but that we could not reliably have it when we need it, the wind does not always blow and at night there is no sun. The wind could be strong in the middle of the night when nobody is using it and it would all be wasted.

What is clearly needed is a way to store the excess from times of plenty to use when there is no sun and little wind. Surely there was something that could do this in place already? Well apparently not. Nothing in place, nothing in the pipeline, nothing in development and precious little awareness that this was problem which desperately needed solving.

Huge amounts of money go towards the development of electrical storage solutions, batteries in other words, for small things like phones or laptops but for bigger things like a house a town or a national grid we are still reliant on the lead acid battery, similar to the one in a car. This is 19th century technology. Surely there must be something better?

Apparently not. An off grid solar powered array for a house or a caravan still uses lead acid batteries and some power stations still use large banks of them as a buffer. Anybody who has a car, or knows someone who has a car, knows that these batteries are far from a flawless solution. Not only do they not charge quickly, they can’t store very much energy, they don’t last very long and many of them emit fumes when charging.

A major rethink was required, both in terms of technology but also in terms of public perception: nobody knows this is problem that needs solving and that this as much as anything is what is holding up renewable energy. If one could focus the ingenuity of humanity on this problem we’d find a solution fairly quickly.

I got to work, I wrote essays, developed a strategy, got a website together, spoke to energy companies, engineers and the government. It seemed like I was getting somewhere at times, for example EDF Energy invited me to speak at Sussex University and my proposal was discussed at government level, but most of the time I was hitting a brick wall in terms of getting through to the right people. EDF cancelled my talk the night before I was due to go and I was informed by Malcolm Wicks the energy minister at the time, that the government was ‘making every effort’ in this area.

I was not an academic, a degree in French and a career as a fine artist does not qualify one to speak about energy storage, the grid or renewable energy so it is no wonder I was not taken seriously. I figured that I must have been wrong, that there were solutions in the pipeline, or that energy storage was not necessary due to some other factors I knew nothing about.

So I became an academic. I studied and earned an MSc in Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies from the Centre for Alternative Technology. Whilst there I investigated thoroughly the whole subject. It turns out I was right. Nine years after having this idea we are still bereft of the energy storage which would not only help renewable energy get a useful footing but would also save vast amounts of wasted energy from conventional sources. Ever wonder why street lights are on all night? It’s because we can’t turn power stations on and off as we need them, some take hours but most take a day or more to turn on or off. It’s more efficient (if that’s the word) to just keep them on.

Now there are more macro energy storage solutions being developed

I was rewarded a little for my efforts because the Department for Energy and Climate Change did launch something similar to what I was proposing (here), but unfortunately with little fanfare, scant publicity and no public awareness.

This gravel and heat pump battery  by a company called Isentropic is one of my favourite solutions, it seems to be great idea. This other one seems to be finding favour but seems ridiculous to me, with too many mechanical losses and too much componentry to wear out. Strange as it may seem, our government seems to have favoured this latter solution all the way from California over Isentropic based in England.