Image: Siemens

Talking energy storage with Siemens’ Carl Ennis 

Grid connected battery storage systems are proven technologies, and metering is catching up, so what questions still need to be answered when it comes to energy storage? Siemens Smart Infrastructure managing director Carl Ennis talks energy storage, electric vehicles and ammonia with Molly Lempriere. 

Ahead of his speech at the UK Energy Storage Conference, held in Newcastle in September, Siemens’ managing director of products and systems within its Smart Infrastructure division, Carl Ennis, highlighted some of the challenges and the opportunities facing transmission and distribution, as well as how electric vehicles could provide a virtual battery – if we “do it in an intelligent manner.”

Molly Lempriere:  

What do you think the biggest advancements in energy storage in the UK have been in recent years?

Carl Ennis:

From a technology perspective, we've now proven at good-scale, grid connected battery storage systems, and also more and more behind the meter solutions. From a technology perspective, it’s developing quite well, and that's mainly around chemical batteries. 

We've started to see a lot of trials around hydrogen and ammonia as other storage mediums, and seen some good demonstration there. We demonstrated green hydrogen as a source of electricity for electric car charging at the recent Goodwood Festival of Speed, so I think we’ve seen some good innovative examples of how to use different storage mediums to address some of our challenges.

What sort of storage solutions is Siemens working with and why?

We cover a broad range of technology. We are doing compressed air and chemical batteries, but we're also working on hydrogen, as I mentioned, and even more interesting perhaps is ammonia.

The commercial solutions we have developed are really driven by market opportunities; ultimately, we're a commercial organisation. So, we are doing a lot of research and development in the background, but in terms of what we bring to the market first it tends to be driven by our view of where the market is, and its appetite to adopt.

There is no point running forward with a solution that there isn't a market for, so we've tended to look at those sort of niche scale, chemical battery solutions that provide almost the sweet spot at the moment in where we are in the development in storage in the UK. So this is mid-scale solutions; several megawatts, fast response, with the ability for rapid recharge, the sustainability about the number of recharges you can deploy.

We're of the opinion that as we develop, we will move to more local energy systems and different technologies could also be brought to the fore as this system develops. We're doing research and development in the background that we believe will perhaps offer future solutions that will answer some of tomorrow's problems, as well as today's.

You mentioned that ammonia might be more interesting. Why do you say that?

I think it depends who you talk to and the market will probably determine it, so far we've seen hydrogen be quite attractive. To me personally though, hydrogen is not as energy dense a source as ammonia, which does bring with it some other challenges. But, it also brings with it the advanced gifts, higher energy density and also an easier ability to transport.

So, I mentioned the example of Goodwood Festival of Speed, where we took a wind farm to create green hydrogen, and then transported the hydrogen to Goodwood and used a fuel cell to create electricity. That's a pretty simple process, actually. The amount of hydrogen we needed to take was about the size of the 40ft truck, if we would have done that with ammonia, we would have been able to do that with a single cylinder of gas; just to give you the scale of an improvement in energy density.

I think ammonia is very interesting. We have a full demonstrator of the ammonia principle at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford, and it shows very interesting and very promising results.

Do you think we’re already seeing the demands on transmission and distribution change, and is the sector struggling?

We've had a few changes already, I actually mentioned to someone recently how stable our electricity system has been over the last 30 years. However, we've seen a number of very visible failures of our system not least the one in early August, where we had the simultaneous outages at the power station and a large wind farm.

I think actually what's been interesting is the number of times we have close to similar outages. What happens is as we naturally move from a centralised, robust, aged and stable system, to a more decentralised system, we have to be careful as a country to ensure that we do that in a manner that is controllable. That is around making sure that the decentralised assets have intelligence, in terms of its ability to system manage but also its ability to be controlled by the overall network to minimise the risk of major disruptions.

So, we have seen a few [failures] in the last few years, but the number of near misses is what I think is the worrying statistic. That's as a result of this change to a decentralised local energy solution and we need to take cognisance of that when we're doing these fundamental changes to the electricity system in the UK.

what do you think the biggest challenge in the energy storage sector is?

My view is that it's not a technology challenge, it is the scale of the task that is in front of us. I like to use an example a piece of work in the southeast, where we wrote local authorities an energy strategy paper to get them to carbon-zero by 2050. To put the scale of the task into perspective, in order for them to get there it would be the same as taking every single one of their five million cars off the road, or equivalent to spending about £15bn in commercial projects to decarbonise.

I think that that's the scale of the task, we need to start acting now to have a fighting chance of hitting it. But I don't believe that there is the confidence around the stability of policy to really drive scaling.

That's the biggest challenge we've got, it’s not the technology, we have demonstrated that we have the technology in lots of instances, we have the ability to do this; how to scale it becomes the next challenge for not just the just the industry, but for the UK as a whole.

In terms of policy, would you say that Brexit is holding the UK back?

I would say that Brexit in isolation is not holding the UK energy industry back, what I would say is the natural uncertainty of a process like Brexit is what's holding it back. So it's not the action of being separate. But the action of not knowing whether you're separate or not, is the bit that is causing the problem.

How are electric vehicles going to challenge the storage sector and do they present an opportunity?

I think they are an opportunity, I think we see significant growth from the electric vehicle market in the UK, not just the vehicles themselves, but also the infrastructure around them.

First of all they will provide a challenge, because it will create a demand on the network in a manner that has not been seen before. Where we've historically seen large demands, they've been concentrated, because it's an industrial plant or whatever, here we're going to see a broad wholesale demand across the whole of the network, but perhaps it wasn't designed for. Particularly when you start to look at higher-range cars with people wanting faster charging duties. That will result in your house going from the relatively meagre 3/4/5 kilowatt load to perhaps a 10/20/30 kilowatt load, and that will impact on the network if we don't do something about it.

I think there's a challenge there to start with, but then when you get to scale, it becomes an opportunity, because all of a sudden - if we're very, very clever - and we have a terribly intelligent network, we could see all of those plugged-in vehicles as a virtual power plant. The ultimate in storage that could respond, if required, to avoid the system outage that we had in early August.

I think it’s a challenge to start with, but not insurmountable and we're working with partners and customers to take that on. A good example of that is that we do some work with a partner called Ubitricity in London, where we're deploying home mounted chargers and looking at how is that is impacting the local network and learning from that as a group with the local authority.

Image: Siemens