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Energy storage: Innovative solutions to meet today’s most pressing challenges

The energy system is undergoing significant changes, as we transition to an increasingly decentralised and decarbonised energy system powered by variable renewables such as wind and solar. In Europe, this change is accelerating as EU policymakers have committed to achieving a net-zero emissions power sector by 2050.

The devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on European economies raised fears that these ambitious EU proposals – part of the European Green Deal package – would be set on the back-burner. However, the European Commission has proposed an energetic Recovery Plan which places the energy transition front and centre.

Energy storage: key ingredient for a successful transition

Traditionally, policymakers seeking to support the energy transition focused primarily on increasing the deployment of renewables. However, in recent years it has become clear that the energy transition also requires a host of new technologies that can offer flexibility to the system.

Energy storage has emerged as one of the most promising flexibility providers, alongside demand response, flexible thermal generation and investments in grids. Energy storage technologies allow storing excess energy and discharging it when there is too little generation or too much demand. There are many different types of storage in development and on the market today: batteries, pumped hydro storage, thermal storage, flywheels, ultracapacitors, liquid air, compressed air, power-to-gas and others.

What all storage solutions have in common is that they provide flexibility at different time-scales – seconds/minutes, hours, weeks and someday, months – which will be essential to achieve a high share of renewables while maintaining the security of supply and resilience. Storage can help consumers increase their self-consumption of solar photovoltaic (PV), or to generate value by providing flexibility to the system. Storage can help defer or avoid investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure, extending the lifetime of existing assets and helping grids function more efficiently.

Industrial consumers can install storage to reduce consumption peaks, which can entail costly charges and to provide back-up power if there is a black-out. Storage at any level can offer system and ancillary services, safeguarding the secure and efficient operation of the electricity system. Energy storage can help link the electricity sector with heating and cooling, gas, transport and industrial sectors. This can support system-wide efficiency and optimised energy use across different sectors.

Given the immense value of storage in helping integrate increasing shares of renewables, it is no surprise that storage deployments are quickly growing. According to data collected by the European Commission, total operational energy storage capacity reached around 52 gigawatts (GW) in early 2020 across the EU-27 and the United Kingdom. A further 36 GW of storage capacity has been announced to be under construction or authorised. Storage is not just a technology of the future, it is here already, providing valuable services across the energy system.

Storage is expected to increase significantly in the coming years. At the beginning of 2020, the fourth European Market Monitor on Energy Storage, produced by EASE and [research and consulting company] Delta-ee, foresaw a 30 per cent increase in annual electrical energy storage deployments across Europe in 2020 compared to 2019. Though this level of deployment will likely not be reached due to the impacts of COVID-19, it is clear that energy storage is gathering momentum as a key technology for the transition to net-zero.

Promising innovations

The EU is investing heavily in clean energy technologies using many instruments and funding sources and the Commission’s COVID-19 Recovery Plan proposal foresees a significant amount of investments in clean energy technologies.

Targeted investments can speed up energy storage research, development and deployment. Across all energy storage technologies, Research and Development (R&D) can achieve further cost reductions and increase efficiency, energy density, system integration and so on. This will be particularly important to develop the next generation of battery technologies to meet the rising need for stationary storage and EVs. Aside from cost decreases, research is targeted towards achieving better sustainability and recyclability, reducing dependence on critical raw materials and improving battery management systems. Investments are also needed for power-to-x technologies, both power-to-gas and thermal energy storage. These solutions can provide longer-duration storage (weeks or even months) while supporting sector integration.

In addition to supporting the development and deployment of the technologies themselves, these efforts can also help build valuable know-how among European researchers, boosting manufacturing capacities and enhancing the competitiveness of European companies. Targeted investments are particularly important to ensure a just energy transition, facilitating the decarbonisation of fossil fuel-dependent regions as well as islands and remote areas.

The overall goal should be to make the EU a world leader in clean energy technologies such as storage, building up our toolbox of cost-effective flexibility options while leaving no region or citizen behind.

COVID-19 and the future outlook

The COVID-19 pandemic underlined the vital importance of a secure and flexible energy system, capable of dealing with unexpected shifts in demand patterns such as those experienced when the lockdown began. The need to invest in resilience and flexibility across the energy system is clear, especially since it can support the economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Policymakers, industry and societal stakeholders must work hand-in-hand to deliver on the ambitious energy transition goals. For energy storage, it is needed a strategic approach that seeks to support all energy storage solutions in a technology-neutral way. Furthermore, a regulatory framework that creates a level playing field for energy storage technologies is crucial.

Coupled with significant investments in energy storage research, development and deployment, a proper policy and regulatory framework can ensure that Europe becomes a world leader in clean energy technologies.

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