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More batteries, please!

EV charging point
By Phil Briscoe
12 September 2023
Energy, Transport & Infrastructure

It is almost three years since the government removed battery storage planning applications from the NSIP (Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects) regime and handed the decision-making power back to local councils in England. So, what is happening in this less talked about energy sector and why does the UK need batteries? 

Battery energy storage systems (BESS) to give them their full title, are a key part of the energy storage mix and a crucial part of decarbonisation. They store power generated by wind and solar, which can then be called upon when the power is needed – essentially helping the electricity grid to function like those solar lights we all have in our gardens. Generate power when it is freely available from nature and use the power when we need it, all with less impact on the environment and for a lower cost – surely nobody can have an issue with this?! 

As with any technology and planning in general, as applications are submitted and the number of projects grows, so do the levels of opposition. Our SEC Newgate colleagues around the country have seen an uplift in local opposition campaigns recently and several planning rejections in the last few weeks have included sites in Warwick, Newark and Sherwood, and East Devon. Active opposition groups have sprung up in locations such as Somerset and Yorkshire.  

While some opponents will cite a proliferation of battery sites around the country, the latest figures from the government Renewable Energy Planning Database (REPD) published this month, show that there are just 93 operational sites and 65 sites in construction. However, rather than the number of sites, the figure that counts is the installed battery storage capacity for the UK stood at 2.4GW in June. This a big number but only 10% of the government target of 24GW of installed battery capacity by 2030, and less than 5% of the best-case scenario outlined by National Grid where we would have 50GW of installed capacity by 2050. 

There are lots of applications in the planning process, and on the latest REPD figures, 305 planning applications have been submitted and are currently awaiting determination. However, as with other sectors, planning is challenged on all fronts by resources, politics and consultees, so decisions are delayed, and those planning determinations take an ever longer period of time to materialise. To help expedite the planning process, the government issued its latest planning guidance on renewable and low-carbon energy this month which specifically included battery storage sites with a suggested approach that applicants should engage with the local fire and rescue service from the outset, to obtain their feedback ahead of the formal consultation period. This single piece of advice perhaps underlines that these projects are just standard local planning applications and not some unknown infrastructure to be feared by the officers and members who may have a desire to go looking for that long grass! 

The involvement of the fire and rescue consultees stems from concerns over the fire risk and how designing the site can reduce those risks. The root of that concern is a fire at a BESS site in Liverpool in September 2020, when too much heat was generated within the battery creating a condition known as thermal runway when a failing battery can ignite. This is the only such incident in the UK to date and the online resource Energy Storage Failure Database lists a total of just 63 battery storage failures globally in the last 12 years.  With changing technologies and evolving safety measures, the number of fire incidents globally appears to be declining. 

Internationally, the UK has the largest installed capacity in Europe, and we are frequently cited alongside the USA and China as global leaders in this technology, albeit at different levels. Just yesterday, the US reached 13GW of installed capacity and although China started late in this sector, they doubled capacity to 8.7GW in 2022 and are expecting to hit 50GW by 2025 – taking three years to do what the UK is expecting will take 27 years. 

Planning is not all negative in the UK though, and there are some significant projects in the pipeline. Just last month Trafford Council consented to a 1GW project at the Trafford Low Carbon Energy Park, heralded as the world’s largest BESS scheme. It is actually not quite as large as the Moss Landing site in California with a capacity of 1.6GW, but it will certainly be the largest in the UK, and Europe. 

The value of the global BESS market is expected to triple before the end of this decade to over $30bn and the technological advances being pursued in the UK suggest we are in a good position to capitalise on the economic benefits of this growing market. The UK government has funded five battery storage research projects with concepts such as a single liquid flow recyclable battery being developed in Edinburgh, and a hydrogen storage system using depleted uranium from test fusion reactors being developed by EDF, the University and Bristol and the UK Atomic Energy Authority. 

Planning arguments aside, BESS technology is a key part of the future low-carbon energy mix for the UK, and we need a lot more operational sites to fully reap the benefits for our climate and our pockets. In the process, we have the opportunity to take a leading position in global markets for research and innovation and supercharge the batteries of the UK economy.