Batteries are the rush hour lane of the energy highway

The energy transition is in full swing. Or at least, that’s what we’re led to believe. And while the energy market is evolving and companies are working in various ways towards the energy transition, political authorities in The Hague seem reluctant to take a stance. This includes their position on batteries, even though batteries play a crucial role in creating a future-proof energy system. What is the role of batteries in a sustainable energy network, and what is needed to integrate them widely?

What can we do with batteries?

Let’s start from the beginning. What can batteries do on the energy grid? The most important role of a battery is to balance the energy grid, which is crucial in the current times. With the rise of wind and solar energy, the electricity generated by the existing grid exceeds its capacity during peak moments. This leads to grid congestion, causing a mismatch between energy demand and supply. A battery can play a crucial role in this scenario. When there is excess energy, the battery charges. When there is a shortage of energy, the battery supplies energy back to the grid.

And we’re not talking about insignificant power here. There are batteries that can deliver 300 megawatts (MW) of power for up to 4 hours (1,200 megawatt-hours, MWh). For reference, average-sized cities like Woerden and Houten consume around 30 to 40 MW during peak moments. Therefore, these cities can easily be supplied with energy for a day and a half by a fully charged battery. And this calculation assumes no electricity is generated from other sources in the meantime.

The desired minimum capacity for batteries is 4 hours, but ideally, it should be extended to 5 hours. This margin is built-in to allow for flexibility. This represents a significant improvement compared to earlier batteries, which could only deliver power for half an hour to 2 hours. The preference for 4 or 5 hours is not arbitrary. Peaks of 4 hours in solar energy generation are quite common, and this excess energy can be stored for nighttime use. On the other hand, during peak hours, a 4-hour capacity is more than sufficient to accommodate surplus energy demand.

The collaboration between renewable energy sources

So far, we have discussed the role of batteries specifically in relation to solar energy. However, in the energy transition, different renewable energy sources need to coexist. Everyone has a place in the energy transition, and solar energy offers many opportunities, especially for rooftops without solar panels.

Wind energy is a different story. Currently, batteries are expensive. To recover the investment, batteries need to operate continuously. Multiple days of inactivity would be detrimental to the investment. Moreover, the current generation of batteries is not designed for long-term storage. During several stormy days, the battery can be charged within a few hours, but not all subsequent wind energy may be usable. However, during such a storm, there are fluctuations in wind speeds that the battery can respond to. The battery allows for delivering a more stable energy profile. Collaboration and optimization between solar and wind energy are crucial, as this is where the battery comes into its own and can be fully utilized. Current batteries can easily last for 15 years.

Phasing out fossil fuel power plants

Collaboration is also the key to creating a robust and sustainable energy network. It’s not just about the collaboration between energy sources, but also between companies, suppliers, and countries. The interconnections between countries allow for more flexibility in renewable energy generation. Batteries can alleviate the strain on international networks at a national level. This also enables a faster phase-out of fossil fuel power plants.

However, this transition won’t happen overnight. It can’t. We have relied on conventional power plants for many years. It’s called a transition for a reason. Currently, the grid doesn’t have the capacity to rely entirely on sustainable energy. But over time, it will become less profitable to keep conventional power plants operational. Producing electricity from renewable sources is nearly costless once they are established.

As sustainable generation increases, the costs of fossil fuel sources rise. Additionally, as we become less dependent on fossil fuel sources, conventional power plants will have to earn more money in the shorter time they are needed; they will be on standby more often. I expect that within 15 or 20 years, conventional power plants in Western Europe will hardly be used on an average day.

The political landscape

Is this transition happening quickly enough? For the environment, it can never be fast enough. However, countries are moving in different directions, so it won’t happen much faster. Germany, for example, is heavily investing in gas, and Poland is subsidizing coal. Achieving the energy transition and incorporating batteries is primarily a challenge in terms of the business case. The technology is available, but there are financial challenges when countries still want to compete economically using outdated energy sources. In this regard, the Netherlands needs to establish a new international competitive position.

A message to The Hague

Dutch politicians also claim to support the energy transition. However, in practice, the opposite often seems to be true. We continuously undermine our own progress. People are left to bear the transportation costs associated with battery usage, costs that are in line with the old system. But why are we doing this? Batteries help balance the grid, but we have to pay the price. In many European countries, such as our Belgian neighbors, things are different. They even receive a portion of the basic income as standard conditions to make batteries more profitable.

The system needs an overhaul. We must move away from conventional thinking in the Netherlands. Batteries are vital for the energy infrastructure. We shouldn’t think that laying thicker cables in the ground is the solution to handle all energy generation. In fact, 10 years ago, during the introduction of solar and wind energy, we could have anticipated that grid congestion could become a problem if we didn’t enhance the infrastructure, for example, with batteries.

The grid is not overloaded all the time. It’s only the case during peak hours. The rest of the day, there is plenty of capacity on the energy highway. The battery is the auxiliary lane. So, to policymakers: think beyond the present, take a position, and ensure that permit procedures and regulations are in order. Invest now in the system of the future.