Chris Knowland

Chris Knowland

Head of Science and Innovation, San Francisco

Part of Global Science and Innovation Network

25th March 2013 San Francisco, USA

Energy Storage Technology in the UK and California

It’s something we depend on every day – when we power up our phones and laptops, use a domestic hot water tank, or turn on a flashlight – but energy storage technology also has a role to play at a much larger scale. As I found out recently, the ability to store energy in the electrical grid could be a major factor in enabling secure, low carbon energy supplies.

The SIN team in San Francisco convened a workshop to address these challenges earlier this month, amid the pine trees of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. The event brought together 25 delegates from both sides of the Atlantic, with expertise in a range of technology, economics and policy areas. The setting was appropriate – during the energy crises of the 1970s, researchers at Berkeley Lab pioneered many of the energy-efficient technologies that have enabled California to become the state with the lowest per person energy consumption in the US.

The presentations and discussion over the two days of the event covered a range of energy storage technologies. Even to a non-specialist like myself, the topic was fascinating, and I soon came to realise the potential of energy storage in enabling the transition to the low-carbon electricity grid that is a central piece of plans to combat climate change in the UK and California.

Imagine you come home from work in the year 2050, turn on the lights in your house, boil your electric kettle, and switch on your electric oven. Millions of others who are connected to the same electricity grid are also doing this. Of course, by this date, 80% of the power feeding into the grid comes from wind turbines. But on this particular day, the wind isn’t blowing. With not enough electricity being generated to power those millions of lights, kettles and ovens, demand exceeds supply, and the result is a blackout.

One answer to this is that for every wind farm, a natural gas or coal fired power station is built, which can be switched on when there’s not enough wind to meet demand – this is pretty much the model that is in use today. But if we are to have the amount of wind power envisaged under low-carbon energy scenarios, building all these additional ‘backup’ stations would be hideously expensive. Energy storage provides a solution – when energy demand is low but wind speeds are high, such as at night, the power generated from wind farms could be saved up until it is needed.

There is no one way of doing this, and the scientists at the workshop presented a dazzling array of high and low tech solutions for storing energy. My favourite option is the use of compressed air – which essentially involves using wind energy to pump air into underground caverns, creating high pressures, and then releasing this air to drive another turbine when needed.

This workshop was a good example of one of the Science & Innovation Network’s main goals, namely to bring leading UK researchers together with international counterparts, and use this as a launching pad for collaboration. Participants in this month’s workshop were able to identify a number of possible areas for greater US-UK collaboration, and SIN will be working with the participants to help turn these ideas into concrete outcomes such as joint projects, research networks, papers and grant applications. One of the best parts of my job is to see ideas for collaboration form at events like this, and we’ll be following the outcomes from this one closely. Watch this space…

About Chris Knowland

Chris joined the San Francisco Science & Innovation team in August 2012. Prior to this, he worked in sustainable investment research and financial media in London, with a particular focus…

Chris joined the San Francisco Science & Innovation team in August 2012. Prior to this, he worked in sustainable investment research and financial media in London, with a particular focus on renewable energy and environmental markets. He holds an MSc in Environmental Technology from Imperial College London, and a BA in Biological Sciences from the University of Oxford. In addition to his duties as Head of S&I in San Francisco, Chris acts as a coordinator for energy issues across SIN North America.