Storage technologies

The storage of electricity offers significant benefits for the generation, distribution and use of electric power. At the utility level, for example, a large energy storage facility can be used to store electricity generated during off-peak periods - typically overnight - and this energy can be delivered during peak periods of demand when the marginal cost of generating additional power can be several times the off-peak cost.

Energy storage plants can supply emergency back-up in case of power plant failure, helping to maintain grid stability. On a smaller scale, they can also be employed in factories or offices to take over in case of a power failure. Indeed in a critical facility where an instantaneous response to loss of power is needed, a storage technology may be the only way to ensure complete stability.

Energy storage also has an important role to play in the generation of electricity from renewable energy. Many renewable sources such as solar, wind and tidal energy are intermittent and their output often cannot be predicted with accuracy. Combining some form of energy storage with a renewable energy source helps remove this uncertainty and increases the value of the electricity generated.

Given these arguments in favour of energy storage, it may come as a surprise to learn that the use of storage plants is not widespread. One reason for the relatively small number of such plants is the availability of the technology. Another is cost. Until the late 1970s there was really only one large-scale energy storage technology and that was pumped storage hydropower. This is effective, but expensive. Since the 1980s other technologies have been developed for both utility and consumer applications but cost is still perceived as a handicap.

Yet since the 1980s there have been powerful arguments in favour of expanding storage capacity everywhere. A grid with a storage capacity of 10% to 15% of its generating capacity is much more stable and much cheaper to operate than one with virtually no storage capacity. Peaking capacity can be virtually eliminated and capacity additions can be planned more easily. But in a competitive, deregulated energy market the economics of energy storage may not appear obviously advantageous. It is probably this that has prevented greater investment.

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