Can energy storage make the world safer?

Today’s seminar was from Dr Jacqueline Edge of the Energy Storage Research Network. Her talk focussed on the benefits and risks of incorporating energy storage in our current system. As a complement to the talk she has written us this blog post on the topic. You can also download a copy of her slides from the talk [PDF].

The Dinorwig pumped-storage hydroelectric scheme
The Dinorwig pumped-storage hydroelectric scheme, photo by Denis Egan

Our energy systems are undergoing a transformation, as we aim to incorporate renewables, as well as electrify transport and heat: all part of the plan for decarbonisation. Energy storage is a key enabler of low carbon energy systems which are clean, reliable and affordable. In developed nations which already have nationwide energy infrastructures, energy storage needs to be integrated into these systems in a cost effective way and with minimum disruption. For developing nations, a unique opportunity exists to leapfrog to an energy system, built from the bottom up using stand-alone microgrids which provide small communities with clean power and can eventually be linked up into a larger grid.

Energy storage offers many benefits for energy systems, balancing supply with demand at the household, microgrid, or national infrastructure level. While many of the benefits can be attained with other technologies, energy storage can provide multiple support services simultaneously. Energy storage also introduces new capabilities to an energy system, with a range of technologies able to provide mobility, rapid response to events and efficiency through storing energy in the form most needed for the application. It is important to remember that energy storage does not stand alone, but is part of a system that has become essential to the safety our modern lives provide.

burned auxiliary power unit battery from a JAL Boeing 787 that caught fire on Jan. 7 at Boston's Logan International Airport.
A heavily burned battery after it suffered thermal runaway.

However, it is not all good news. With any new technology, there are new hazards to overcome. In order to provide support at the grid scale, large quantities of the storage vector, be it water, extreme temperatures or electricity, must be accommodated and these present a hazard in themselves. The chemicals used in some energy storage technologies may be flammable, corrosive, toxic, or even, under certain conditions, explosive, presenting dramatic and immediate dangers to the local communities. There is the possibility of widespread environmental damage as device manufacture scales up, through the extraction of raw materials, manufacturing processes and eventual disposal. It would be a shame to replace one form of environmental destruction with another and it is therefore critical that we address these issues now, before large scale production gets underway.

A range of energy storage technologies exist, but no one technology can provide all the required services. Deployment of hybrid systems is therefore likely and this greatly increases system complexity and impacts safety. For instance, this presents a problem for first and second responders, who need to be aware of all the hazards present at a given site and the consequences of imposed conditions and actions. The many interactions between technologies need to be understood and the training required for installers, maintainers, safety inspectors and operators becomes necessarily complex. The potential for second life use of storage technologies raises the question of how to ensure that these devices are still functional and safe to use in countries with different cultures and regulations and that they are disposed of appropriately when they are no longer useful.

Highview's Liquid air energy storage demonstration plant
Highview Power‘s Liquid air energy storage demonstration plant

These new risks and hazards can be mitigated through incorporating the principles of safety and sustainability in the design of the technology, employing green chemistry principles during manufacture and engineering for safety. Training of first and second responders should include provisions for storage technologies and hybrid systems. During manufacture, operation and disposal, development and enforcement of multilingual, internationally accredited standards can help to guide the technical workforce, which can be supported further by training and certification.

There are a number of energy storage demonstration projects underway and it is critical that these mitigation tactics be explored and implemented as part of each project, while promoting an open data culture for shared learning.

I have managed the Energy Storage Research Network for three years and have developed an overview of the wider issues presented by energy storage. This research forms part of a Lloyd’s Register Foundation funded project to develop the content for a Foresight Review on Energy Storage.

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