Small Scale Renewables – what does the future hold?

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AES UK & Ireland officially opened its 10MW Advancion energy storage facility at Kilroot Power Station on 17 February.

In attendance at the launch, were senior staff from AES, industry and energy representatives from Northern Ireland, OFMDFM Junior Ministers Emma Pengelly MLA and Jennifer McCann MLA, as well as myself and the Rural Enterprise Chairman.

This storage array as it is known is an innovative way to strengthen the electric grid while reducing costs and system-wide emissions whilst utilising the existing infrastructure at Kilroot. It is a two year pilot project, the first of its kind in the United Kingdom. It represents the first step towards a planned 100MW energy storage array, with this added capacity due to be available in 2017, making it the largest energy storage facility in the EU. Funding is being provided by Innovate UK Energy Catalyst, in partnership with Queen’s University Belfast.

One of the main implications of this project is that it will integrate with local wind energy. This will allow the more efficient management of this intermittent resource and provide support to the grid. Whilst the pilot has a capacity of 10MW, the flexible resource is actually 20MW, on account of the core and node structure.

What this means is that it instantaneously balances demand and supply of electricity and support to the all island transmission grid via SONI and the storage array regulates frequency to maintain grid stability and improves efficiency of external grid assets.

It so happens that the UFU Rural Enterprise Committee have been looking at energy storage for three years and the developments at Kilroot could have ramifications for our own small scale on-farm renewable energy sector.

The array is built within an existing building at Kilroot, which allows the rapid and scalable employment of energy, this is because it was built on a block-by-block basis (the array utilises 53,000 batteries, arranged in 136 separate nodes). By this logic, this model could be deployed, on a significantly lesser scale, on local farm businesses that already have a wind turbine installed. This would allow them to use the generated electricity when they need it most on the farm. Key challenges will need to be addressed, namely cost. However, it represents a raft of possibilities for the small-scale renewables sector.

John Maynard Keynes in his “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” written during the depths of the 1930s Depression, pointed to a link between investment spending and economic growth.

Currently the Chancellor of the Exchequer has committed to major infrastructure projects in GB, but economists have argued that more immediate benefits would also be delivered by small infrastructure projects such as the energy storage facility at Kilroot. You only have to consider the number of local companies involved in the construction of the array; the Balance of Plant contract was provided by a Belfast-based company using a variety of subcontractors from across Northern Ireland; technical drawings, project management, switchboard manufacturing, overall civil construction were all provided by local businesses as well.

What this project illustrates is that renewables is playing an important role in the Northern Ireland economy by energising infrastructure investment. This makes the DETI decisions such as the premature closure of the NIRO for onshore wind and the abrupt ending of the RHI even more difficult to comprehend, but with innovations in energy storage the UFU will be striving to establish a sustainable future for small-scale renewable generation in Northern Ireland.