Energy Storage


December 2, 2012

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Renewable energy watchers may have noticed some interesting island action happening in the North Atlantic recently.

As Wind Watch readers will remember, the Faroe Islands have recently unveiled an initiative to integrate large amounts of renewable energy into their power systems.

In a place where 60% of homes are heated with oil and there is an ambition to be fully sustainable by 2050, Dong Energy elected to install highly responsive grid technology that can shift loads in seconds.

The Faroese energy supplier SEV showed this smart-grid approach can handle an immediate 10% drop in power supply, simulating the kind of intermittent supply that would come with a wind-based energy system.

It is not the only way to cope with large amounts of renewable energy on the grid, though, as was recently demonstrated to the South, in the Orkneys. These islands opted for a technology that on the surface looks a lot less high-tech.

The Japanese engineering giant Mitsubishi installed two 40ft containers each holding 2,000 lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, giving a power output of up to 2MW.

These will allow Scottish power provider SSE to store wind power in times of plenty and feed it back into the island grid when the turbines stop turning.

Such efforts are critical to small island communities that currently face major bills for importing fossil fuels. But they are also greatly of interest to countries such as the UK that are betting on renewable energy integration on a much grander scale.

Happily, the North Sea experiments show that both smart grids and energy storage can potentially help overcome the vexing problem of integrating wind power into the grid.

On a larger (say UK-wide) scale, though, it will probably take both rather than one or the other. And that is where the comparison between the Faroe’s smart circuits and the Orkney’s old-fashioned containers is particularly poignant.

Because right now smart grids are all the rage, with massive investments and rollouts happening across Europe. Energy storage, by contrast, is something of a Cinderella sector within the power industry.

It may not remain that way for long, though.

When the liquid-metal battery maker Ambri recently revealed that one of its backers was none other than Bill Gates, it highlighted the fact that smart investors are starting to see a lot of potential in energy storage.

For those already involved in wind power, this potential should be readily apparent.

Intermittency remains one of the industry’s great unresolved challenges, and it is not something you can solve by installing a smart grid on a wind farm. But you can solve it with energy storage.

Adding storage, be it through pumped hydro, flywheels, compressed air energy storage, batteries or any other method, radically changes the name of the game for wind power, suddenly giving it the potential to act as base-load generation.

It is true such options do not currently come cheap. But research is picking up speed, and the opportunity is enormous. This is an area where there is plenty more in store.

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