We are in the midst of a massive shift in our energy system, driven by technological innovation and the imperative to tackle climate change. Just a few years ago electricity was generated by 50 large power stations. Today we are approaching 1 million distributed electricity generators in the UK.
Landmark recently participated in a CPRE funded study of the changing energy system and its impacts on landscape. The study concluded that the impact that the transition will have, indeed is already having, comes down to the chosen trajectory of UK decarbonisation pathway. This remains uncertain until clear policies are put in place to deliver the commitments essential to the scale of change required.
Meanwhile, the market is already responding and working hard to push forward the technologies needed to manage the shift towards renewable generation needed to deliver both energy decarbonisation and decentralisation. Renewable energy is typically more intermittent than traditional sources, which means that the need to align generation with demand is becoming more of a challenge for the System and Distribution Operators. Installing flexibility in the system is vital, and energy storage capacity is critical to provide responsive and flexible energy when and where needed.
Landmark is supporting a number of clients in this market. Whilst, however, the national electricity system has already made the radical leap to take on board the onset of renewables generation, the terrestrial planning system lags behind. Despite energy storage schemes being, in most cases, low key and otherwise acceptable development, the potential pipeline of available storage capacity is not moving smoothly to deployment.
The energy storage landscape
Driven by high value grid balancing services, such as Enhanced Frequency Response and the Capacity Market, the energy storage market has developed in the past year from an emerging sector, which in January UK Power Networks reported processing of up to 12 GW of storage enquiries to a current pipeline of over 500 MW of projects. That surge in the number of applications for connection agreements for storage projects is reflected by a similar spike in planning applications for storage schemes. This high level of commercial interest and development activity implies that deployment of energy storage could grow very rapidly in the near future, with a 2016 study by the Carbon Trust and Imperial College London suggesting that energy storage could result in savings of around £2.4 billion per year in 2030 for the UK electricity system.
This is all very promising but, as with the waves of deployment in the renewables sector over previous years, developers are finding delivery on the ground hampered by systemic constraints. At a practical level there are now more schemes in planning or development than there is demand from National Grid meaning that, to be competitive, a successful scheme must have low grid connection costs. At a procedural level, lagging regulatory and policy regimes, mixed messages from politicians and lack of technical knowledge of the planning implications of battery storage developments, is hindering informed determination of planning applications. Now is most definitely a good time to consider the way forward.
Energy storage as part of the UK energy supply is not a new concept. Pumped hydropower has been supplying back up demand from Dinorwig Power Station to the grid since 1984, using stored energy produced at night during low cost periods, and then generating during times of peak demand. What has changed fundamentally in recent years, however, is that the location of flexible and balanced energy infrastructure that is essential to support economic growth, and deliver on climate change resilience, has moved closer to where most people live. Energy generation and distribution is no longer a feature of distant and despoiled landscapes. It can be located in any landscape where capacity and need coincide. The challenge is therefore to generate better understanding of how energy storage infrastructure can be built in the right way and in the right locations to gain community support.
The energy storage market is flexible and an obvious sustainable development fit with the point of energy demand. Research just published by Regen (Energy Storage the next Wave) focuses on co-locating storage with both generation and high energy users as the way forward. This allows energy to be stored when it is cheap, when the sun is shining and the wind blowing, and supplied to the user when demand and costs are high.
Battery storage is currently the dominant and financially most straightforward technical solution available, but other technologies such as flywheels, and liquid air (LAES) are coming forward. These are clearly technologies that can help to reduce emissions through maximising benefits from renewable generation schemes. Planning is, however, grappling with the question of how battery storage, the most mature of the first wave of such technologies, should be addressed, both in terms of the principle of the development and its impacts on the environment.
In terms of development principle, recent appeal decisions have stated that battery storage is not covered by ‘renewable energy’ policy, nor by ‘low carbon development which directly helps to reduce emissions’. In terms of visual impacts, battery storage facilities tend to resemble a suite of shipping containers, each capable of storing energy for later release to the network. There is no easy comparison with other types of conventional development in the countryside against which to ‘test’ such schemes. Whilst the development footprint of local and farm based schemes is relatively small, their visual impact varies depending on the viewers opinion, from contained rectangular units capable of being screened by appropriate and beneficial planting, to entirely alien features which have no acceptable context in the rural landscape.
Whilst the latter view, taken objectively with other types of development in the countryside, is both absurd and at odds with the legal requirement to consider every development on its own merits (and with Ofgem’s moves to classify energy storage as a subset of generation, for the purposes of network charging), it is a common opinion in a wider public concerned about the visual effect of proliferation of energy infrastructure in the countryside, and therefore one which sways planning committees.
Battery and other forms of energy storage technology have moved ahead of development plan policies. Just as planning had to catch up with the onset of onshore wind and solar PV in the open countryside, there is currently a policy vacuum at the local level. Until this gap is closed, the energy storage sector needs to look carefully to national energy and industrial strategies for the up to date position on the government’s direction of travel and emerging policy. At this level there is unequivocal recognition of the critical role of energy storage technologies in the future mix of the ‘smart and flexible’ UK electricity system.
For more information about planning for energy storage, please contact Gemma.Melvill@thelandmarkpractice.com