The three S approach to uncertainty

Ian Marchant

Ian Marchant FEI, Immediate Past President

Life seems to be getting more and more uncertain. We are being warned about a Brexit rollercoaster and the oil price, at least in percentage terms, seems to be doing a good impersonation of an elevator; up one minute, down the next. All this uncertainty makes decision-making complex , especially when they concern long-life assets.

Against this background I have been thinking about the question of energy independence. Whilst, in my opinion, this isn’t necessarily a good goal at the national or even local level in its own right, I do believe that investing to reduce one’s dependence on and exposure to both the volatility of the global energy markets and the resilience of local energy distribution systems is something to be considered.

This is where, I believe, a combination of three Ss comes in: solar, storage and software. The cost of solar panels has come down enormously over the last ten years or so but the economics still depend upon support mechanisms, partly because of the profile of solar production. That problem will always be with us and that is where storage comes in.  Installing a suitably-sized lithium ion battery in the home or office allows much more of the solar power to be used on-site and this significantly improves the economics of the whole installation. The third leg is energy management software that can optimise on-site demand (which could include decisions on when to recharge a plug in an electric vehicle), to match the availability of locally produced or stored electricity. The same software can also be used to decide when electricity should be exported and when imported from the grid, an increasing source of value as we move to time of day pricing. Finally, the same software can work out when the stored energy can be used to provide support services such as frequency response to the local grid or through aggregation to the national grid. It really is the combination of the three that makes all this work.

Investing in solar, storage and software may not mean complete energy independence but it will certainly reduce exposure to energy uncertainty and will be an increasingly good investment in its own right. We are seeing commercial offerings starting to emerge in this space and I’m sure there will be more to come.

Small is beautiful

Ian Marchant

Ian Marchant FEI Immediate Past President

The book Small is Beautiful by economist E F Schumacher was originally published at the time of the 1973 oil crisis. To quote Wikipedia “It is often used to champion small, appropriate technologies that are believed to empower people more, in contrast with phrases such as bigger is better”.
I think these words could usefully be applied to the challenges facing the energy industry today when we are facing different challenges that may, with the benefit of hindsight, look like an energy crisis.

The last hundred and fifty or so years have seen the energy industry fixated with bigger is better. It has been about the larger power stations, heavier and deeper offshore platforms and bigger companies. I think this is, however, yesterday’s trend. The future is smaller, more distributed and local. Here are four illustrations.

  1. More and more homes, schools and offices are fitting small solar systems and now this is frequently being combined with local storage. You can now install lithium ion batteries that are smaller than conventional gas boilers which means that all of your solar produced power can be consumed on-site. These are small, personal decisions which are democratising and disrupting the big centralised electricity system.
  2. The rise of unconventional oil and gas has transformed the economics of the fossil fuel industry. Regardless of the controversy around fracking, one thing is clear. These wells are quicker and faster to develop than the pieces of giant industrial architecture that dominated the industry until recently and this is changing the nature of the commodity cycle and the politics of the energy industry.
  3. Even the nuclear industry is being affected. If the 1600MW Hinkley Point C ever gets built, I suspect it will mark the final death throes of the bigger is better mentality. The focus is now on so-called small modular nuclear reactors which may be a fifth to a quarter of the size of Hinkley and stand a sporting chance of being connected with words not normally associated with nuclear power; ‘on time and on budget’.
  4. The market share of the big energy suppliers has been in steep decline recently and we have seen the emergence of a range of smaller competitors with different business models as well as the growth of collective and mutual owned energy suppliers. I suspect that this trend is going to be a consistent feature of the market.

The challenge for the energy industry will be how it copes with the disruption that is bound to occur as we move from a bigger is better world to one where small is beautiful and diversity of scale is a strength.

We don’t want energy storage

Ian Marchant

Ian Marchant FEI, Immediate Past President

Claiming that we don’t want energy storage seems like a provocative thing to say. For example, the Energy Institute (EI)’s 2015 Energy Barometer report, a survey of professionals in the energy industry, rated storage as the area most in need of innovation. My point isn’t that energy storage isn’t important; it is. My point is that, of itself, it’s not something we actually want. You don’t hear people say that what they want for Christmas is just some simple energy storage along with some socks and a chocolate orange!! In thinking about the technicalities of energy storage we should first think about what we actually want and I believe we want two things: RESILIENCE and FLEXIBILITY.

Let me illustrate with the energy storage that most of us are familiar with, even if we don’t recognise it as such; the fuel in the tank of our car. The typical fuel tank holds 50 to 60 litres of fuel that gives us both instant flexibility even on a cold morning (modern cars are so good at starting nowadays) and a couple of weeks worth of resilience assuming average mileage. Indeed, if we knew there was a supply crunch most of us could probably stretch that full tank for a month or so by car sharing, using public transport and the like.

So that unseen energy storage which comes free when you buy a car and only ties up £50 to £60 in fuel gives us a lot of resilience and flexibility in our mobility. The energy system that has evolved over the last hundred years or so has embedded within it quite a lot of hidden resilience and flexibility. As well as our car fuel tanks we have petrol and diesel at filling stations and tank farms, we have piles of coal at our diminishing number of coal-fired powers stations and we have natural gas in the network of pipes, in dedicated storage facilities like Rough and Hornsea and offshore where at some fields production can be ramped up quite quickly.

However, the energy world is changing. We need to decarbonise our electricity system and then the rest of our energy system. This second stage is likely to increase the role of electricity in meeting our heating and transport needs. The problems are that firstly our current electricity system only has embedded in it the resilience and flexibility that the current uses of electricity needs, and secondly what little already exists is in decline principally as old coal stations shut.  This is exacerbated by the fact that  low carbon forms of energy, be they renewables, nuclear or clean fossil fuels, are not currently known for their inherent flexibility or resilience. So we will be faced with less of what we need just when we start needing more. What will happen when our electric car battery needs to be recharged at the same time as our heat pump needs to work and we want all our lights and gadgets to function but it’s a still calm night?

This is the reason why so many energy professionals put energy storage at the top of their innovation agenda. In deciding on where that innovation should be targeted we need to think about what level in the electricity system we can best provide resilience and flexibility. There are four possible levels: the source of demand (our home for example); the local area (think of the transformer at the end of your street); the generator itself; or the grid as a whole. The answer may be a combination of all four levels and, importantly, may be different for resilience than it is for flexibility. It will be determined by things like economies of scale, the efficiency of sharing the capabilities with others (we don’t all need to meet our own maximum flexibility – if we can pool with others then the flexibility needs of the system will be less than the sum of all the individual needs) and the value of providing security close to demand. I have a hunch that the answer may involve local or even domestic level resilience and generator or grid level flexibility but time will tell.

Debate about energy storage tends to get dominated right from the start about technology, be it batteries, phase change material or pumped storage hydro. However, we need to separately assess our current and future needs for resilience and flexibility, then decide at what level in the system that need can be most efficiently met and only then determine the choice of technology. We have to put needs before technology.