Battery power

UK business secretary Greg Clark has announced a £200m+ investment in developing battery technology, as part of a broader industrial strategy. Despite being late in the game compared to some Asian countries, the intention is to boost the UK economy by making the country a leader in energy storage. There are a lot worse things the government could be spending taxpayers’ money on. We have been calling for investment in energy storage R&D for years. Without it, most of the current (subsidised) spending on renewable electricity is wasted.

At the same time, the plan is to reduce peak demand by enabling domestic consumers to have appliances turned off for short periods when demand is high. This has some merit, as long as it relates to non-essential items such as water heaters, fridges and washing machines.

But the policy is flawed because it also proposes to encourage domestic generation and storage of electricity from solar panels, with surplus to be fed into the grid tariff-free. While this may be of some benefit in summer, such households will inevitably be net consumers from the grid after dark and during the winter months. Conventional backup generators will still be needed, but will operate (expensively) for somewhat less of the year. The government hopes that fewer power stations will be needed, but this is very much a moot point at the moment.

And, importantly, the system costs will not go down. In fact, they are likely to increase further, because someone has to pay for the solar panels and batteries and few people will do so themselves without grants, subsidies and a guaranteed price for the electricity they export. However this system is constructed, taxpayers and most consumers will pay more. The projected £40bn that consumers are projected to save by 2050 (cumulative? per year? relative to what and making what assumptions?) is likely to go to those lucky house owners with south-facing roofs and enough money for the initial capital outlay. That means relatively well-off suburban and village dwellers, by and large.

So, it’s good that more R&D is being funded, but markets will respond naturally when breakthroughs in performance and price are made. In the meantime, subsidising inadequate solutions is not the answer.

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