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Storage is the missing piece of the jigsaw for renewables and successive governments have ignored it for too long

The UK will slash more than GBP3.5Bn a year from the cost of continuing to decarbonise its electricity system if it builds new grid-scale electricity storage to balance the variable output of renewables.

More storage will also strengthen Britain’s energy security and enable carbon reduction targets to be met more quickly.

That’s the conclusion of a paper by QBC, the grid-scale storage developer, which illustrates how storage is currently the missing piece of the UK’s renewables jigsaw.

The company’s findings are independently supported by Professor Phil Taylor, Director of the Institute for Sustainability and Professor of Electrical Power Systems at Newcastle University. Professor Taylor hailed the work by QBC as an insightful and timely intervention from a storage company right at the sharp end of renewables.

To meet EU and national climate change targets, UK government policy has forced the closure of coal and oil fired power stations – the heaviest CO2 emitters – while funding an ambitious programme of wind and solar generation.

Other countries have coupled the building of new storage to renewables so that surplus energy can be captured and used later when the wind fails to blow or the sun does not shine. More than 99% of electricity storage around the world uses pumped hydro technology due to its low cost and proven reliability.

But successive UK governments have ignored the potential of pumped hydro storage, choosing instead to use CO2-producing diesel generators and gas power stations as backup. As a result, electricity consumers pay three times over – pay to build renewables, pay operators to curtail or throw away potential generation when there is too much electricity, and pay to keep fossil-fuelled generation in reserve.

Scientists and energy market experts at QBC say the policy is a failure against all three of The Department of Energy & Climate Change’s (DECC) own electricity supply benchmarks of lowest cost, most secure supply and lowest carbon.

Relying solely on renewables teamed with fossil fuelled backup is more expensive than necessary. It means grid stability is increasingly dependent on the reliability of stand-by generation and electricity via cables from neighbouring countries, and it does not deliver the maximum possible carbon reductions.

QBC, which is currently developing its first pumped hydro site in North Wales, has identified locations throughout Britain with low planning risk that could deliver 10GW of such storage.

QBC says that building 10GW of pumped hydro storage facilities will save some GBP3.5Bn a year, resulting in an overall grid cost to the UK at least two times lower than the UK’s current strategy of renewables supported by stand-by fossil fuelled generation*.

How the savings will be made

Large savings will result from the need to build less than planned offshore wind. Each new GW of storage will displace at least one GW of future offshore wind – at less than half the cost – plus a further GW of fossil-fuelled stand-by generation.

Still more money will be saved by storage soaking up generation when supply exceeds demand. Imperial College estimates that by 2020 Britain will effectively be throwing away up to 27% of wind electricity. Storage will enable Britain to cut waste to just 7%, lessening the need for contentious constraint payments.

By soaking up generation when supply exceeds demand, storage will also complement demand side measures in which industry and commerce are paid to switch off machinery and turn down lighting during grid stress events.

Yet more savings will result from the way storage evens out supply and demand, reducing the need for capital and operational expenditure on grid transmission infrastructure.

With storage rather than standby fossil-fuelled plant filling the gaps between wind and solar, Britain will emit five million fewer metric tonnes of CO2 per year, taking a further significant step towards achieving its carbon targets.

And, finally, Britain’s electricity supply will be more secure and self-sufficient, easier to run for maximum stability and reliability, and less dependent on interconnectors with neighbouring countries.

Said QBC chairman Peter Taylor: “Storage is the missing piece of the jigsaw for renewables and successive governments have ignored it for too long. At the moment we are all being forced to pay for a serial failure of foresight that, ironically, undermines all three pillars of The DECC’s renewables strategy. Our paper shows a strategy that omits storage is not the lowest cost, not the most secure and not the least carbon intensive.

“Putting the UK back on a par with other nations will take time. A single new pumped hydro storage facility might take anything up to seven years from initial proposal to actually beginning operation. With 30GW of renewables planned for 2020 Britain does not have the luxury of being able to continue kicking the storage can down the road.

“Our survey shows that Britain could achieve as much as 50GWh of storage using innovative pumped hydro alone. We don’t claim pumped hydro is the sole answer to the UK’s storage needs. Certainly it is the tried and tested option, but we see a future where the UK incorporates different storage technologies at different layers in the system, with pumped hydro providing big capacity, fast reaction storage at grid-level, other technologies at distribution network substations, and even domestic storage playing a part.

“However, the starting point has to be a recognition that the path pursued by the UK for the last 20 or so years has failed – and that storage must now be a core part of the UK’s renewables strategy.”

Professor Phil Taylor added: “This is an insightful and very timely intervention from a storage company right at the sharp end of renewables. I applaud QBC for being so refreshingly open to the role of other storage technologies, even though its own current focus is pumped hydro. QBC’s paper has the welfare of the UK at its heart, not narrow commercial interest.

“I too am technology agnostic when it comes to energy storage but can see that pumped hydro could play a significant role not least due to the scale at which it can be built. Our work here at Newcastle University also supports QBC’s contention that storage is most effective if used in conjunction with other smart grid techniques such as demand side response and smart appliances.”

QBC is currently behind the first new grid-scale storage scheme to be built in Britain for more than 30 years. The 600MWh/99.9MW pumped hydro scheme near Llanberis in North Wales will innovatively re-purpose abandoned slate quarries and will support around 300 jobs during the construction phase and some 30 full time positions once it has begun its operational life of more than 100 years. QBC has options on further sites around the UK that will use brownfield land, sea water and existing fresh water reservoirs for pumped hydro storage.

Most proven of all electricity storage technologies, pumped hydro provides more than 99% of storage around the world. It uses off-peak or surplus electricity to pump water to a top reservoir. The water is then allowed to flow downhill through a pipe and turbines to regenerate the electricity when it is needed. With a typical efficiency of around 80%, it adds just 2gm of carbon dioxide per KWh regenerated, and thereby allows the low-carbon output of renewables to be captured and used, driving electricity costs and carbon emissions downwards, and increasing security of supply.


* A 10GW, 50GWh fleet of storage will have an annualised cost of GBP1.54Bn. The UK’s current strategy of renewables supported by fossil-fuelled back-up generation has an annualised cost of GBP3.63Bn, plus additional variable curtailment costs of up to GBP2Bn per year. A 10GW storage fleet is therefore between 2 and 3 times cheaper. This calculation excludes the additional savings on interconnection and transmission network upgrades that will be enabled by storage.

Further editorial information:

Dave Holmes, QBC – 07999 552875

Professor Phil Taylor, Newcastle University – 0191 208 4800

Kevin Fiske, Sage Partnership – 01189 344007

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