Community energy gives people agency to take practical action on climate change in their local community. Our latest investment project demonstrates just that – an amazing community fightback which BEC was proud to be part of.
It first began in 2015. At that time Bristol, along with other locations across the country, was hit by a rash of planning applications for highly-polluting diesel power plants designed to deliver grid-balancing services to the national electricity grid.
If the frequency of this system moves outside the range of 50.5Hz – 49.5Hz there’s a danger of blackouts: an excess of electricity will take the frequency too high, a shortage will take it too low. Whenever either of these events happen, National Grid must act quickly to correct the imbalance. To avoid electricity shortages, it needs contracts with suppliers who can ramp up electricity generation at short notice.
The first of the diesel power plants was applied for installation in Lockleaze. But there was a problem – the community didn’t want it, and fought back. A strong campaign grew, brilliantly led by RADE (Residents Against Dirty Energy). BEC was part of this, and we mobilised our supporters to oppose the planning application. The campaign was successful – the developer withdrew its application.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The developer had a second site in mind – this time in Lawrence Hill, near Feeder Road. The plan here was for 48 diesel engines, only a matter of metres from St Phillips Marsh Nursery School. The noise and air pollution they produced would have been equivalent to 96 bus engines!
This second planning application was submitted in 2016, and once again the community resisted, led by RADE. BEC members were involved again, and we spoke at the planning committee meeting. And there was the same result – planning permission refused.
“They never asked us. They pretended we didn’t exist. I guess to them, people like us don’t matter.”Simon Holmes, Head of St Philip’s Marsh Nursery
But the developer still wasn’t finished, and appealed against the decision. So the RADE campaign cranked up yet again and BEC joined in too, submitting further objections to the planning inspector. Finally, in 2017 the inspector dismissed the appeal, and an extraordinary campaign by community volunteers had been won.
There are better ways than diesel to provide grid-balancing services. One of them is through battery storage.
We now have periods in the UK when renewables are producing more electricity than is required – typically on sunny summer days and windy winter nights. When this happens, batteries can store the excess electricity and discharge it later when less power is available. This makes them very suitable for providing the grid-balancing services which the national grid needs. And, unlike diesel plants, batteries provide a bi-directional service: storing excess energy as well as ramping up short-term supply. Batteries can also react to grid stabilising requests in milli-seconds – much quicker than traditional peaker plants.
Battery storage is not new to BEC. While the developer was planning its diesel peakers we were already developing a pilot 106kWp/169kWh battery storage scheme in Winchester. Completed in 2018, it’s still in use today. The valuable learnings from that project gave us the confidence to progress the trail-blazing microgrids at Water Lilies and Hazelmead, where our batteries are the foundation stone which enables residents to get all their heat and power from renewables. There’s no need for any fossil fuels at these sites. What’s more, our batteries there can additionally provide grid-balancing services.
Given our battery experience BEC was keen to investigate the potential for batteries at the proposed diesel peaker sites in Bristol. So we linked up with Bristol-based Aura Power, one of the leading battery-storage site developers in the UK. In 2017, with the support of RADE, Aura Power submitted a planning application for a new battery storage scheme at the Lockleaze site. BEC and others supported the application, and planning permission was granted. Aura Power completed the installation in 2018, and at the time it was one of the largest battery-storage schemes in the country.
A few years later the same process followed at the Lawrence Hill site near the Feeder Road: Aura Power submitted a planning application for a 20MW battery storage scheme; RADE, BEC and others then smoothed the way for the planning permission, which was granted in 2020.
Three years later, the battery installation at Feeder Road is now approaching completion. When fully charged the batteries will deliver 1.5 hours of electricity, providing 30MWh of power to the grid.
The project has been funded and constructed by Bristol-based Thrive Renewables, who bought the site from Aura Power after it had been consented, and will operate it going forward. And we’re delighted to announce that Thrive has offered BEC the opportunity to invest up to 20% in the scheme. We recently made an initial investment of £500,000, and will be raising additional funds in the coming months.
As we transition to a net zero world, energy storage has a huge part to play. Thanks to the deployment of over 40 GW of new renewable energy capacity (wind, solar and hydro) in the UK over the past decade, we are well on our way to decarbonising our electricity network.
However, we also need to decarbonise our heating, transport, and industrial processes such as the production of concrete and fertilisers, and much of this will be achieved through electrification. Over the course of 2022 UK electricity demand ranged from 18GW up to 48GW. Once we factor in all these new loads the eventual estimated electricity demand is over 100GW.
This is fully achievable, particularly if we max out the UK’s huge off-shore wind capacity and implement proper energy efficiency and demand-side response measures. But even with all that in place we will need to store the excess energy produced on some days to make up for other days when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.
Energy storage isn’t a new concept, and there are many types. These include power stations like Dinorwig in Wales. These use pumped-storage hydro-electric energy to provide a big surge of electricity to the grid, for example, just before advert breaks on prime-time TV.
Once that water has been released though it takes a long time to pump it back up the mountains during the night. So we need a combination of storage technologies, both short and long duration, which can respond to electricity grid demands in real-time. The good news is that these technologies are available to us now, and are being developed at great pace – for example: high density hydro, thermal storage, compressed air, flywheels, and, of course, batteries.
Battery storage is probably the most developed technology in this list at present. Thanks to a huge drop in production costs in recent years, the UK now has more than 34GW of battery storage capacity either operating, under construction or in planning.
There have long been concerns about the ethical sourcing and sustainability of lithium-ion batteries because many contain cobalt, and mining this rare earth metal has been linked with child labour.
Thrive Renewables and BEC take this issue very seriously. Thrive routinely undertakes supply chain sustainability analysis of potential battery providers’ products, and this led to cobalt-free lithium-ion batteries being selected for the Feeder Road site. These are manufactured using lithium iron phosphate (LFP).
At a global level Tesla has also begun using LFP batteries, while big commitments to battery recycling by the US and EU in 2022 are helping improve the overall sustainability of the sector. However, we recognise these aren’t immediate fixes to these issues, and there’s a delicate balance between needing to act rapidly on climate change and avoiding causing other kinds of harm to people and the environment.
This project is a perfect example of how the community coming together can bring about real change. People power fought off a highly-polluting diesel scheme and replaced it with the storage technology we need to help us go net zero.
Hats off to RADE, a small group of determined volunteers who led the campaign against the diesel plants. They never gave up. BEC is proud of the part we played too, and we thank our many supporters who took action all those years ago. You are the changemakers.