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We’ve got the power, let’s think how to store it

Hunterston B nuclear power station in Ayrshire, which was due to be decommissioned in 2016, has had its operational licence extended until 2023
Credit: James Williamson
Hunterston B nuclear power station in Ayrshire, which was due to be decommissioned in 2016, has had its operational licence extended until 2023 Credit: James Williamson

The year ended with exciting headlines about wind power having generated more than 100% of Scotland’s electricity requirements on 20 out of 30 days in November.

There will be much more of the same in the months ahead.

Indeed, with large-scale offshore windfarms coming into play in Scottish waters, the surplus is bound to grow quite spectacularly on all those days when the wind blows.

This does not detract from the fact that it does not always blow – so where does that leave us?

While intermittent renewables generation increases, Scotland’s baseload power is on exactly the other trajectory.

Hunterston B is finally due to close in 2023 and Torness a few years later.

There are no firm plans for new power stations in Scotland to churn out boring old baseload.

The greater that imbalance, the higher the cost. In November, wind generators in Scotland were paid
£30 million not to produce power.

One windfarm alone, Scottish Power’s Whitelees, has been paid a total of £96m since 2011 not to generate electricity.

This is paid for by consumers throughout the UK, and National Grid says it represents only 1% of bills.

Nonetheless, there is likely to be greater interest in these payments if the imbalance continues to grow, with consumers paying both to subsidise renewables generation and also the power required to back it up.

In 2019, we should address this inescapable challenge by talking far more about storage – the holy grail of the renewables revolution.

And the most environmentally friendly way of complementing renewables is by backing them up with other renewables rather than importing additional power which is likely to be generated from fossil fuels.

Last month, wearing my hat as a visiting professor at Strathclyde University’s Centre for Energy Studies, I chaired a discussion on this subject in the House of Lords.

It was based around an excellent paper produced by the centre which focused mainly on “the case for pumped storage hydro in the UK’s energy mix”.

Pumped storage hydro (PSH) is an old idea whose time for revival is long overdue.

In particular, it is a very Scottish solution to a distinctively Scottish problem since it is here that the shortfall in baseload is going to be at its most conspicuous as the aforementioned nuclear stations close without any plan B in sight.

Whatever its other demerits, the House of Lords is a good venue for informed discussion and it was remarkable to find the consensus which existed around the principle of PSH being a jolly good thing.

Indeed, it is extremely difficult to find an argument against it, in principle.

The practice is slightly different. One of the evening’s most interesting contributions came from a representative of the relevant Whitehall department – Business,

Enterprise and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) – who essentially said that if there was still a publicly-owned National Grid, PSH would be a no-brainer.

A state-owned system can afford to take a long-term view of investment.

That presumably is why more than 90% of all electricity storage in the world comes through PSH.

However, in our own privatised world, where investors want their money back fast, an alternative mechanism has to be found.

As the Strathclyde paper said: “The timeframe issue is an important one.

“Where solutions like electrical energy storage require large-scale investment to ensure outcomes valued by society over the long term, the payback periods required are lengthened and thus more greatly impacted by political and policy uncertainty.”

That sums up the practical problem.

It is a challenge which BEIS seems to be taking seriously and I welcome that.

Surely, given the fundamental nature of this issue to the whole basis of our future electricity supply and the fact that the generation gap is heading in only one direction, an answer has to be found through some form of guaranteed demand for storage systems, including PSH.

There are six PSH schemes in Scotland and one in Wales at various stages of development, with an aggregate potential to create 4.1 gigawatts of storage capacity – no small contribution but leaving plenty of room for other technologies and approaches.

The acquisition of the long-established Cruachan PSH plant on Loch Awe by Drax from Iberdrola offers the opportunity to double its current 440 megawatt capacity.

All of the schemes that have been put forward on Loch Ness-side, in Perthshire and the Borders have been well received from an environmental perspective.

Just as important in my view is the fact that they would create significant manufacturing and employment opportunities – which is more than can be said for most of the renewables developments that have taken place in Scotland over the past decade with very little direct economic benefit.

At heart, I suppose, my support for this technology goes back to basic respect for hydro power as an essential part of Scotland’s energy history and potential, never fully realised.

It would bring things full circle if the long-established technology of hydro generation and storage could now be utilised for a very 21st Century purpose.

My other hope for 2019 is that the saga of major wind power development in the Western Isles will finally be brought to a head – hopefully in a positive way. It is now pushing on for 20 years since the Western Isles Council set out a bold strategy which envisaged renewable energy as the cornerstone of a regenerated economy.

The intervening period has been littered with setbacks, most notably the absence of an interconnector to carry power to the mainland.

The only way to remedy this is through the guarantee of major developments which will underwrite the investment, thereby opening the door to other projects and technologies.

I have always maintained that there should be a separate “islands” category for subsidy.

However, in the forthcoming CfD round, schemes in both Lewis and Shetland will have to compete with offshore wind for a limited pot. Particularly for the Western Isles, the outcome will be of massive, long-term significance – for good or ill.

Brian Wilson is a former UK energy minister


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