The new power generation

The main barrier to renewable energy used to be price. But that’s no longer the case
February 22, 2018

Both Rachel Reeves and Peter Aldous are right—the way nations power themselves is changing, and Britain is no exception. Technological advances and the continued fall in the cost of renewable energy mean that the potential for new, green power systems in Britain is much greater than even a decade ago.

The main barrier to renewable energy used to be price. But that’s no longer the case. Mass production of solar technology, especially in China, has brought costs down so low you can now buy solar panels in IKEA. The UK’s extensive coastal waters means the country has been quick to develop great strengths in off-shore wind. This has been so successful that UK off-shore wind energy has become cheaper to generate than nuclear.

An old argument against renewable energy sources was that they were fine in principle, but what happened when the sun goes in or the wind drops? Technological advances are close to making that argument redundant too. Battery storage, especially the development of lithium-ion batteries with their high energy density, opens up a whole new potential mechanism for powering Britain. These new batteries can store more energy for longer and can put out higher power levels than any cells ever made.

There has been a huge surge in the production of lithium-ion batteries, propelled largely by the global shift to electric cars. This in turn has caused a spike in the market value of lithium, the metal at the heart of this new technology (I’ll be returning to this subject in Prospect soon.)

The environmental consequences of removing hundreds of millions of hydrocarbon-fuel-burning vehicles from the world’s roads will be enormous. But an even greater change will come when this new battery storage capability is combined, on a large scale, with renewable energy sources.

If wind turbines, or solar panels can be used to charge batteries, then the scope of that energy becomes much greater. Tesla already markets an in-house battery, a wall-mounted device about the size of a conventional boiler, that charges up from renewable sources and can be used to power the home. With enough units of this sort, a neighbourhood, or town, or city even, could be powered by a wind farm even when the wind was no longer blowing, or by solar power in the middle of the night.

This rush for battery technology is the real key to making a viable green energy network in Britain—and globally. And it is here, in the development of lithium-ion technology, that Britain lags.

Britain’s private sector has some areas of encouraging activity, not least at the Dyson factory in Wiltshire, where James Dyson is working on an electric car and a new generation of lithium-ion battery to power it. Dyson is cagey about his work, but the rumour is that it will be a “solid state” lithium cell. Even so, our production of these kinds of batteries lags the US, Japan and China by a vast margin.

The failure then is one of far-sightedness. Other countries, the US and China, have invested heavily in new technology. But, as Rachel Reeves says, the present UK government has soured on green energy policies, and the money it has found for their development has been stingy.

And then of course there is the all-consuming fire-storm of Brexit, which makes the development of a new, substantial green agenda all but impossible. That, combined with President Trump’s less than ideal attitude to climate science means that, perhaps, the greatest hope for this new technological shift lies not with government but with private enterprise.