A lithium-ion battery is a true jack-of-all-trades: developed in the late 1970s, it initially established itself as an energy source for cameras, mobile phones and laptops. Since then, countless such batteries have been installed in electric cars, and now these rechargeable batteries are also to play a pivotal part in the energy transition. Why? Over the past few years, these technological powerhouses have become integral to storage power plants, as they play a central role in the supply of green electricity. Or rather, they play two central roles.
Until now, batteries have only had to tick one box: supply a device with cordless power, whereby charging has always been a necessary evil. When it comes to storage power stations, on the other hand, the energy storage process in itself serves an independent purpose – if not more than one.
On the one hand, storing excess energy from the grid is necessary in order to bridge load fluctuations: every device and every machine that is switched on lowers the grid frequency. Each feed-in (whether a nuclear power plant or a single solar panel) increases the frequency – albeit at decidedly varying degrees. These feed-in fluctuations have become more frequent and more pronounced as renewable energy has expanded. It is therefore even more important be able to offset these divergencies. This is where battery storage systems come into play: within fractions of a second, they are able to absorb excess power or make power available at a moment’s notice.
Storage power plants should also make it possible for solar and wind power stations to always generate electricity come wind or shine. Currently, it is not unusual to see only select rotor blades turning in the breeze. This is to avoid potential surplus electricity from not being used by consumers and overloading the grid, resulting in a local or even large-scale blackout. With the appropriate storage capacities, however, all wind turbines could be up and running and producing electricity. The following Monday morning, this stored power could then be accessed by consumers.
A business model is currently being developed to meet the increasing demand for such plants. In most cases, however, it is not (yet) profitable. The industry is therefore calling for a new remuneration system to ensure the cost-effectiveness of these integral plants. To date, stored electricity has had to compete with ‘normal’ electricity on the market, and storage technologies have been too expensive to turn a profit. After all, what is referred to as the ‘operating reserve’, used to stabilize the grid frequency, is remunerated separately. However, growing competition is pushing down prices in this area as well.
Many companies have already hit the ground running and have installed veritable mega-batteries. In 2014, the municipal energy supplier WEMAG in Schwerin connected Europe’s largest battery storage facility at the time, with a capacity of five megawatts (MW) and five megawatt hours (MWh) of storage capacity, to the grid. When fully charged, the storage power plant was then able to supply 5 MW of electricity for one whole hour. Mid-2017, WEMAG then expanded the facility to a capacity of 10 MW and 15 MWh. It now consists of more than 53,444 individual lithium manganese oxide batteries. Despite this expansion, the storage facility in Schwerin no longer stands out from the crowd when it comes to other mega-batteries. Throughout Europe, companies – both energy suppliers and grid operators – have been commissioning plants of a similar magnitude.
In the Netherlands, for example, the US multinational energy corporation AES operates a 10 MW battery with Samsung SDI technology. The UK’s largest battery storage facility is also produced in South Korea (by LG Chem), and boasts an output of 40 MW and a storage capacity of just under 28 MWh. The VLC-Energy-owned plant based in Kent, southern England, is a joint venture of the British electricity producers Low Carbon and VPI Immingham together with the Swiss-Dutch commodities giant Vitol.
Another British company, Pivot Power, has set its sights on no less than the ‘revolution’ of transport through mega-batteries. To this end, 45 large-scale batteries with a capacity of 50 MW each are to be distributed across the United Kingdom. In addition to the usual specs, they are intended to serve as charging stations for electric cars. Two plants, one in Carlisle and one in Southampton, have already been approved.
Belgium’s largest electricity storage facility is not operated by an energy company, but by the national transmission network operator Elia. In May 2018, an 18 MW battery from Tesla was connected to the grid.
Incidentally, the US car manufacturer currently holds the world record: The company, spearheaded by Elon Musk, built a 100 MW and 129 MWh lithium-ion storage power plant in Australia. What is more: The Tesla boss had bet with the state of South Australia that he would bring the $50 million plant online in under 100 days, or the whole thing would be free of charge. Musk won and the Australian state had to pay. In the meantime, even larger storage facilities are being planned in Australia and the USA.
The largest battery in Europe is currently located in Schleswig-Holstein – and not by chance one might add. After all, northern Germany is a hotspot for continental wind power production. The storage power plant, located in the municipality of Jardelund, is able to store more than 50 MWh of electricity and feed it into the grid with a capacity of 48 MW.
It was built by the Japanese Mitsubishi Corporation in cooperation with the Dutch Eneco Group, a municipal company which claims to be investing in various areas of the energy transition. In addition to playing an operational role within the grid, the Jardelund facility also plays an important role for Eneco: “Germany is one of the pioneers of green change”, said Eneco board member Kees-Jan Rameau in response to the commissioning of the plant in April 2018. “As such it is ideal for gaining experience.”
So far, all these gargantuan batteries have been imported from overseas. To expedite the journey from the fossil fuels to renewables, Europe needs battery storage – desperately. Now, EU politicians want to ensure these storage facilities are being manufactured in Europe, too. en:former will soon update you on how far these plans have progressed.