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Why should we care about energy storage?

Why should we care about energy storage?

By Houda Davis, Research Assistant at Involve.

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Earlier this year, I was asked to write a social intelligence report for Sciencewise on Energy Storage. Social intelligence reports basically gather all the available information on what the public think about a cutting edge or controversial science issue, with the aim of helping policy makers develop better policy decisions and encourage further public dialogue.

At first this seemed like an interesting prospect since the UK is facing some significant challenges around the storage of energy. For example, the demand on the grid in the UK is growing each year and fluctuates massively from hour to hour, day to day and according to the seasons. Also, attempts to find more environmentally sound sources of energy mean more is being produced from renewable sources such as wind and solar. These are highly intermittent and unpredictable so energy is often not there when we need it and recently wind turbine operators were paid to not produce electricity during a recent windy spell.

This is a problem faced globally, with nearly everything we do (particularly in the global north) requiring an energy source, from charging our phones and laptops to heating and cooling our homes. Energy storage was even identified as one of David Willett’s Eight Great Technologies with the potential to stimulate innovation and therefore economic growth for the UK.

After trawling the internet for some time, I realised that the evidence of public engagement with energy storage was very scarce (meaning there wasn’t much to say in my report!). This was disappointing. Why don’t we care about energy storage? Giant flywheels, huge pumped hydroelectric storage plants, compressed air in underground caverns and smart grids haven’t caught the attention of the public or policy makers. I wondered if this was because people expected the market to sort out this type of problem. Or perhaps there are more important issues on peoples’ minds? But this is pretty important stuff considering a failure to develop suitable technologies could result in our lights going out (not mention not being able to use all our other mod cons!) and limit our ability to reduce our carbon emissions.

So I was stuck. What should I write about? Fortunately there has been quite a lot of public engagement on other energy technologies on which assumptions about energy storage can be made, which suggests the public might be concerned about:

  • The negative impacts on local environments resulting from the construction of large scale facilities, such as hydroelectric plants
  • The safety of new technologies, in particular the use of hydrogen
  • The affordability and distribution of costs and benefits economically
  • Domestically the uptake of storage technologies will depend on ease of use, financial incentives and how well they fit into existing habits. 

So perhaps we do not need a national public dialogue for every issue. It seems that energy storage is a broad and complex subject area and one public dialogue would not be able to address the range of technologies available and variety of levels at which the public may encounter them.

This does not mean to say that the public should not be engaged by policy makers, planners, scientists and researchers of all kinds, but rather a more diffused approach should be taken. For example, local engagement will be needed around the construction of large scale facilities and market research will be vital in ensuring the uptake of domestic level technologies, such as smart grids and electric cars. This issue is not going to go away and will be the subject of some amazing innovations.

You can find the full report here.

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