“What happens when the wind isn’t blowing, the tide is turning and someone wants a cup of hot chocolate in the night? If it was up to environmentalists the answer would be ‘tough you’ll have to go without’.” Anybody who’s a fan of wind or solar power has heard the argument that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Some people think this means we’ll always need lots of massive power stations to keep the lights on, but that’s not really how it works anymore. A good mix of renewable energy can do the job – even when the wind’s not blowing. Here’s how. Let’s start with the basics. To get reliable power we need to balance the amount we’re producing with the amount we’re using. Right now, we’re mostly
using the old fashioned method of chucking some more fuel into power stations when the country’s using lots of power. But now we know that coal causes climate change, and that nuclear power stations are record-breakingly expensive and take decades to build. So how do we keep the scales balanced without polluting the planet? Well, we share it, store it, and shift it! We all know that sharing is caring, so imagine if we could pinch a bit of solar from Spain when we’re running low to keep those scales balanced. Well, imagine no more my friends! We’ve already built a couple of undersea cables called interconnectors across to mainland Europe. These allow us to share renewable energy with other countries, and there are plenty more on the way. So if the wind drops in the UK, we’ll soon be able to ask our neighbors over in Denmark to share some of their energy with us. Now let’s talk about batteries.
I know it’s thrilling, but bear with me. If we can store renewable energy on a large scale we don’t need the wind to be blowing all the time. And you guessed it – this is already happening. Massive batteries are popping up all around the country – you can even let the grid use your electric car battery while it’s plugged in, helping to balance the scales in exchange for free charging. But batteries aren’t the only way to store power – there are all sorts of other systems in the works. We don’t know for sure which of them will take off, but because the government has already decided that energy storage is a big deal, it’ll soon be just as normal as plugging your phone in when you go to bed. So far we’ve talked about sharing and storing the energy we produce, but what about the energy we’re using? In the UK, demand for electricity peaks during cold winter evenings, and that’s when the system is really put to the test. But now we’ve got the technology to control the other side of the scales, shifting some of that demand to times when there’s more spare power. For example, if all the supermarkets in the country agreed to turn their fridges down for a couple of hours during those peak times, it would
help balance the scales. And because fridges can hold their temperature for a while, the food stays fresh! Again, this isn’t theoretical – it’s called ‘demand side response’ and it’s already happening in a few places. And the more demand we can shift, the fewer giant power stations we need. So now that we’ve shared it, stored it, and shifted it, the scales are looking great! But we still need to be ready for a worst-case scenario where we’ve tried everything and the scales still won’t balance. And for those moments we’ll keep a little bit of flexible gas power in reserve to make up the difference. But once we get those other bits right, this will hardly ever happen. Renewable energy is already powering our lives – and now that we can share it, store it, and shift it to balance the scales, there’s no reason why it can’t keep the lights on.