The Faraday Challenge: boosting batteries in Britain

Battery technology is set to take centre stage in Britain’s energy future, with Business Secretary Greg Clark announcing a £246m investment and policy reforms to ensure a more flexible and secure UK energy system. But what will this mean for everyday Britons?


The UK government’s recently-announced Faraday Challenge will bring £246m in new investment into battery technologies over the next four years, together with policy changes designed to help Britain reach its 2050 carbon emissions targets. It comes following a review undertaken by Sir Mark Walpole as part of a government-commissioned industrial strategy green paper that suggested greater measures would be needed.

“Batteries sit at the core of our future network, creating flexibility in when electricity is generated and where it is used, when previously this has not been possible,” Endeco Technologies CEO & co-founder Michael Phelan commented following Business Secretary Greg Clark’s initial announcement.

The first stage of the investment round will see the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council bringing together researchers and academics to create a Battery Institute. This will pursue the best storage innovations for application across cars, aircraft, consumer electronics and grid storage.

This phase of the Faraday challenge will receive £45m, and include a series of extra competitions to boost research. It will be overseen by a board chaired by former Ford executive and Royal Academy of Engineering fellow Richard Parry-Jones, before the second phase sees Innovate UK build on the research, and finally a new Advanced Propulsion Centre will expand and commercialise it.

Updated policy

The second aspect of Clark’s announcement focused on policy changes designed to ease adoption of battery technology. Currently, batteries are considered both generators and users of power in British legislation. This lack of a defined role within the 1989 Electricity Act has made it harder to invest in battery technology up until now. Under the Faraday Challenge they will be clearly defined as generators of power.

For many, easing investment in battery tech is just the start of the potential impact policy changes could make in the UK. “If we were to have a policy with homes having some form of storage on [boiler]refurbishments, and that policy was to be in place by 2025, something in the order of six million homes could have storage by 2030,” says CGI UK VP of utilities Rich Hampshire. “That could be equivalent, based on today's storage solutions, to 30GW of storage. If you assume that on average they will be half full, that will be the equivalent to 12 hours of Hinkley Point C's output stored.”

Following Clark’s announcement on 24 July, Ofgem unveiled new rules governing the energy system that will take into account smart appliances. These will allow consumers to save money if they own smart appliances capable of adapting to power demands. For example, smart washing machines can activate themselves during periods of low demand, and benefit from less expensive power prices.

These rules are due to come into effect in 2018, and if they are successful consumers could save between £17bn and £40bn by 2050. This will serve to encourage greater carbon reductions at the consumer level, and speed up the switch to renewable and sustainable technologies.

Not a “silver bullet”

As we work towards having a decarbonised energy system, it is becoming increasingly clear that battery storage is essential to provide the flexibility necessary to cope with intermittent renewable sources.

“If you look at what is happening to the energy system through decarbonisation, we're going to see increasingly over the next decade a lot of the traditional, conventional sources of flexibility, despatch power plants retiring,” says Hampshire.  “The big question is, where will that come from? We have to find new sources of flexibility, and the opportunity that storage presents is to provide that new source of flexibility in the context of the power system.”

The Faraday Challenge is a big step forward for battery storage in the UK, providing a clear path for investment and incentives for innovation that will work alongside Ofgem regulations. While the announcement has generally been met with praise, both within the energy industry and the general public, there is an awareness that more still needs to come if we are to truly gain a secure, reliable and clean energy system.

“There's still a lot of talk about, like whole-system approaches and particularly bringing in gas and heat, which i don't think this plan fully addresses yet,” says Hampshire.

While CGI is encouraging a holistic approach, other groups have suggested that more investment will still be needed. “To make the most of the potential for these cutting-edge technologies, the government should also increase its support for ever-cheaper wind and solar,” said Greenpeace UK’s head of energy Hannah Martin. “Then we can maintain global leadership in clean energy technologies, whilst providing energy security, new jobs and lower bills."

While the Faraday Challenge is no cure-all for Britain’s energy concerns, its focus on battery technology is pushing the UK in the right direction. As Hampshire says, “storage may not be the complete silver bullet, but it does have a significant role to play if we can get the policy and the incentives right.”