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November 9, 2021updated 10 Mar 2022 5:34am

A 104MWh investment: inside Conrad and GE’s battery storage deal

Can Conrad Energy and GE Renewable Energy’s UK battery storage solution overcome renewable adoption challenges?

By JP Casey

Conrad Energy and GE Renewable Energy have agreed to develop a battery storage solution for the UK. Could the project overcome many of the traditional challenges affecting renewable power adoption, and will their new ways of working set a precedent for the energy industry?

Energy storage is among the primary challenges associated with the development of renewable power. The fact that many renewable facilities can only produce power in particular conditions – solar panels when the sun is shining, wind turbines when the gusts are blowing – and that these conditions exist independently of fluctuating energy demand, means renewable power production is often misaligned with demand for that power.

As a result, each renewable project needs to be teamed with a robust storage solution, to avoid energy being generated and wasted when demand is low, and this poses practical challenges for companies and governments. Amid the Texas cold snap earlier this year, it was calculated that in order for Texas to reliably produce 100% of its electricity from renewable sources, it would require 7,000GW of battery storage capacity, six times more than all storage capacity in the US, and at a cost of $5.8tn to the state.

Two solutions to this challenge are technological innovation and collaborative working, both of which are present in a recent deal that saw Conrad Energy agree to develop a battery system for GE Renewable Energy in the UK. The project, dubbed a “major framework agreement” by Conrad, could help add an element of consistency to GE’s growing renewables portfolio, while adding more pieces to Conrad’s ambitious plans to develop a battery pipeline with a storage capacity of 500MW.

Yet despite the optimism of both companies, questions remain as to whether the solution can be delivered on time and make an immediate change in a country that lacks some of the conditions necessary for large-scale renewable power generation.

Technological innovation

“Conrad Energy and GE Renewables have partnered to deliver a 104MW portfolio,” explains Sonia Quiterio, Conrad’s head of new business, immediately highlighting the scale and structure of the project. “GE Renewable Energy will supply the battery energy storage system and Conrad Energy will construct, own, and operate the projects, including optimising the projects through our trading desk.”

"Adding storage to the UK energy system makes renewable energy more valuable,” says Quiterio. Credit: Sonia Quitiero.

“Adding storage to the UK energy system makes renewable energy more valuable,” says Quiterio. Credit: Sonia Quitiero.

The GE storage system in question consists of its reservoir storage units, large battery banks that boast a number of technological innovations to aid in the efficiency of energy storage. These include GE’s “battery blade” design, which can extend the life of a battery by 15%, and can lead to dramatic improvements in production, such as a 50% increase in solar energy sales per site that uses the reservoir storage units.

This investment in cutting-edge technologies could also help overcome one of the greatest challenges to the spread of battery storage solutions exemplified by the Texas example: the prohibitive cost of constructing large-scale battery facilities. Quiterio notes that by committing resources to storage solutions, there could be a knock-on effect on the value of power generated by renewable sources in general.

“Adding storage to the UK energy system makes renewable energy more valuable,” says Quiterio. “One of the challenges of renewable energy is that the more you put on the grid, the more the value declines when output is high. Storage can deal with that by absorbing excess energy, which increasingly will occur at different times of the day, and moving it to a time when it is more valuable.”

Quiterio is also optimistic that the Conrad-GE deal in particular could help overcome, or at least sidestep, many of the challenges associated with large-scale battery development by combining the two companies’ experiences and expertise.

“We are confident in the expertise that Conrad Energy has after building a large portfolio of [flexible generation] projects,” she says. “This, together with our partnership with GE Renewable Energy, ensures that we deliver on-time projects to support UK energy system decarbonisation.”

New ways of working

The deal is also, by its very nature, a collaborative project, and is part of a growing trend in the energy industry that has seen companies come together to share knowledge and experience. Conrad, for instance, has extensive experience in managing energy infrastructure projects, with over 600MW of capacity across 45 plants in the UK.

GE, meanwhile, has put its considerable financial muscle behind sector-leading projects such as the Haliade-X offshore wind turbine, the most powerful offshore turbine, which can power a UK home for two days with just a single rotation.

This combination of both broad and deep expertise could help the project not only deliver on its ambitious goals, including the beginning of deliveries of batteries as early as mid-2022, but help demonstrate the value of such projects for the entire supply chain.

“The collaboration between GE Renewables and Conrad Energy expects to deliver high value to key stakeholders, investors, National Grid, and therefore to the final consumer,” explains Quiterio. “By combining advanced technological systems with our market leading storage asset trading capabilities, the value optimisation is a key element of the transaction.

“Our end goal is to invest in and support clean tech solutions that help our world to be a better place to live for current and future generations.”

Many of GE’s reservoir storage units also feature a modular design, with each unit able to be expanded and reduced in size as is necessary for the power being generated. GE boasts a range of storage capacities around the world, from 126MWh of capacity in North America to 7MWh of capacity in Africa.

With proven experience of operating on a range of scales, GE’s work could demonstrate the efficacy of smaller, flexible operation, as opposed to larger, inflexible facilities that are associated with fossil fuel power generation.

Demonstrating effectiveness

The development of a project on the scale of the GE-Conrad plan, over such a short period of time, and with two of the sector’s leading companies, could also help demonstrate that making tangible change to the renewable industry is eminently possible for those with the resources and intent to make a difference.

Obviously, challenges remain that are common for a project of this scale, including the logistical difficulties of delivering such a wide-ranging solution on time, and working with technological processes that are still relatively new and unproven, but Quiterio is optimistic about the impacts of the deal on the UK energy sector more broadly.

“The deployment of storage in the Great Britain system could overcome one material challenge to renewable energy, the imbalance created between oversupply when the sun shines or the wind blows, and shortage when there is no sun, or the wind doesn’t blow,” she explains. “By smoothing imbalances between supply and demand, long-duration energy storage has the potential to reduce the need to utilise gas plants during a range of system conditions.

“Energy storage is a key enabler to expanding the reach of renewables and accelerating the transition to a net-zero carbon electricity system.”

Conrad’s work could also help overcome particular challenges associated with the UK’s energy infrastructure, and demonstrate the potential for renewable power generation in a country not blessed by natural resources such as abundant sunlight or geothermal power.

“Currently, the UK electricity system is facing lower inertia,” explains Quiterio. “Therefore, fast-acting response is essential considering that the system frequency can move away from 50Hz more rapidly as a consequence of imbalances. Conrad Energy will support the balancing of the Great Britain electricity system by bringing these projects online, [and] to provide not only this service, but also the new suite of faster-acting frequency response products that support operations as the system is decarbonised.”

Both Conrad and GE, therefore, will be optimistic that not only their technological solutions, but methods of working, could help deliver both immediate and lasting change for the UK energy industry.

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