When I joined the electricity industry around 25 years ago as a graduate mechanical engineer, I can vividly remember the creation of a small team of engineers that moved from coal generation to installing and operating wind turbines.
In the years that followed, renewables continued to grow, but last month’s Crown Estate auction showed Scotland still has so much more wind power potential.
The results of the first leasing round of Scotland’s seabed for wind farm projects in a decade were staggering. It was originally forecast that the auction could secure around 10 gigawatts of renewable power from the amount of land on offer, but instead projects totalling almost 25GW – enough to supply around 23 million homes – were successful.
However, while the headline auction results may seem like the end of a process, the hard work for the successful projects starts now – not least because each individual development has yet to navigate what can be a challenging planning process.
The other element which is vital when it comes to harnessing wind generation, is the process of transferring the power from the turbines to the end users.
In today’s electricity grid, Scotland already exports vast amounts of power beyond its borders to demand centres elsewhere, but these new developments will take its energy export requirements to unprecedented levels.
To facilitate this, the electricity grid’s transmission system will require significant strengthening to move more power from Scotland to where electricity demand is at its greatest across Britain. This requires a series of nationally important infrastructure projects including the laying of cables across the seabed to bolster security of supply.
However, unlike conventional fossil fuelled power stations that generate electricity whenever it’s needed, wind farms only supply power when the wind is blowing. Sometimes that can mean we don’t get enough power from wind, and other times we get too much.
In the UK electricity grid, supply and demand must always be equal, with the grid’s stability damaged if either side of this equation suddenly plummets. Excess supply is so much of a threat to grid stability that the national grid can pay power stations, including wind farms, not to generate power when the demand isn’t there.
To put this in context, in 2020 enough wind power to supply more than a million homes was essentially wasted as it couldn’t be stored. Clearly, as the world faces a climate crisis, we should not be wasting renewable power.
With more wind turbines on the way, now is the time for Scotland and the whole of the UK to embrace energy storage technologies.
Currently, the only proven grid-scale technology that can store vast quantities of energy for long durations is pumped-storage hydro. These sites act like giant water batteries, using excess power from the grid to pump water to an upper reservoir where it is stored, before re-releasing it to generate electricity.
The wind power auction results suggest a renewables revolution is on the horizon – to make it a reality we must build the infrastructure to support it.
Drax has been progressing plans to build the UK’s first new pumped hydro plant in a generation at its existing Cruachan facility in Argyll. The project would be one of the largest infrastructure projects in Scotland in recent decades, creating around 900 jobs and more than doubling the site’s generation capacity to more than 1GW.
There are some other prospective pumped-storage projects in the UK but none have shovels in the ground as businesses require more political and financial certainty from the Government before giving the green light to development. Current support frameworks lack certainty over revenue streams, leaving too much risk in the projects for investors.
One solution which is gathering support across the energy storage industry is the “cap and floor” regime. Simply put, this provides a minimum level of revenue to the project and ensures excess profits are passed back to government to provide value for money to taxpayers.
The UK Government has said it will give its views and set out the next steps to removing barriers to investment in long-duration storage projects in the first half of this year. This is welcome and should provide a pathway to get these developments off the ground and help the country decarbonise faster, and more cost-effectively.
The climate cannot afford for renewable power to go to waste – and neither can households facing rising energy costs. With the right support from government, projects such as Cruachan 2 will ensure more green power flows from the North Sea to homes and businesses across Britain, reducing emissions and costs.
Ian Kinnaird is Scottish assets director of Drax