If you were to think of power as society’s heart, then the grid would be its lifeblood. Without the secure generation, transmission and distribution of electricity, you can’t guarantee a safe infrastructure.
In this piece, you’ll discover how power is relevant to the safety and security of society, and the role that batteries can play in maintaining this security.
You’ll explore scenarios that demonstrate what happens when it goes wrong, and the role of batteries in helping to put it right.
The challenge: increased interdependence, decreased awareness
Non-electric infrastructure depends increasingly upon electricity. For example, wastewater treatment, gas utility supply, hospitals and emergency services can’t properly function without electrical power.
In addition, industrialised societies grow increasingly accustomed to an energy-intensive way of life. From our cloud data centres to our microwaves and electric underfloor heating, the modern way of life is underwritten with thousands of kWh every year.
As such, disruptions to the electrical supply can have wide-ranging effects on the fabric of society itself. Disruptions cost money and lives - disasters have demonstrated this, time and again.
But where do batteries fit with this?
Ask your typical man or woman off the street about batteries, and they might mention the device that powers their phone, or those things that they have to keep replacing on the TV remote.
This person is unlikely to have considered the role of batteries in ensuring the safe continuation of their way of life.
And this, partly, is the crux of the matter. As climate change and renewable energy become more politically-charged, awareness of the role that batteries will play remains low. And without public awareness of the technology, public support (…and funding) is likely to lag.
Intertwined with the idea of batteries is the concept of 'energy security’.
The opportunity: securing energy supply
There's no common definition for energy security. But such a definition would be wise to include freedom from energy market manipulation, and from reliance on foreign supply.
Knowing this, what does a lack of energy security look like? Take, as an example, anyone on the receiving end of the Kremlin’s Energy Superpower strategy.
This has seen Russia leveraging its state-owned fossil fuel producers for its own ends - for example, offering preferential energy tariffs as a means to wield political influence. The pinch has been felt particularly in many former Soviet states that rely on Russia for the bulk of their supply.
Another risk comes from long, international petroleum pipelines or supply convoys - vulnerable, single points of failure snaking across national borders.
So, one obvious way to move away from a reliance on fossil fuels (…and the countries that supply them) is to increase renewable energy generation. But just because it's renewable, doesn’t mean it's reliable. Supply fluctuates in line with local conditions. And, regardless of how you generate your power, demand fluctuates - often wildly.
Batteries allow energy from times of excess to be ready when peak demand hits, which goes some way in allowing renewables to pick up when fossil fuels start to dwindle. Improvements in software and machine learning are driving a more efficient integration of storage and generation.
But securing your energy supply is only a part of the issue. The infrastructure by which your energy is distributed must also be protected.
A plethora of threats: securing the grid
Despite decades of effort made to increase their resilience, modern electric grids are vulnerable. Physical attacks, cyber attacks and natural disasters have all demonstrated the ability to take such grids offline - with varying consequences.
The architecture of insecurity: Ukraine, 2015-16
Ukraine may be the best known example of an intentional grid failure. In 2015, in what is now considered to be the first successful cyber attack on a national grid, 230,000 people were left without power in the middle of a freezing Ukrainian winter.
The likely culprit? A nation state sponsored hacker group. In 2016, another hack (likely by the same group) brought the grid down again in the depths of winter, albeit on a smaller scale.
It's worth bearing in mind that this was probably not the last we’ll see of this - indeed, many cybersecurity experts have described the Ukraine attacks as a ‘testbed’ for future incursions, which won’t be limited to Ukraine.
The fact that this grid failure was successful can be attributed to a number of factors - poor information security clearly amongst them. But another factor was Ukraine's lack of a backup system able to cover the shortfall whilst stations were brought back online.
Let's take a look at a scenario with a better outcome.
Backup plan: UK, August 2019
The first major blackout to hit the UK in more than a decade was, in retrospect, attributed to a lightning strike hitting a piece of infrastructure near St Neots. Soon after, a large part of national rail was out of action and over a million people were left without power.
4 minutes later - the grid was nearly back to normal. A disaster, this was not. Why? It’s largely down to batteries. Enhanced frequency response (EFR) batteries, to be exact.
The National Grid maintains a hundreds of megawatts worth of EFR battery storage, which are able to respond to a change in frequency in about half a second.
The obvious benefit of EFR reserve was the temporary buffer it provided whilst other assets (such as reserve power stations) could be brought up to speed to fill the gap.
Indeed, it took longer than 4 minutes for other aspects of infrastructure (such as the rail system) to recover, but things could have, obviously, been much worse.
Decentralisation = resilience
One of the key risks to the national grid is centralisation. Energy is generated by a relatively small number of large plants, and then shunted through a labyrinthine network of substations, transformers and transmission lines.
Despite the clever redundancy that’s built in, there are many points of failure in this system - central co-ordination perhaps being the worst of them.
One growing solution is the idea of distributed energy resources (DER). A DER can describe any kind of energy storage or generation that happens locally. Examples include localised energy storage, and residential solar arrays. Such systems can decrease the overall load on the network, and create safe ‘islands’ of power, if supply is disrupted.
Perhaps the best example of this are ‘microgrids’.
A grid within a grid: microgrids
A microgrid is a smaller grid within a larger grid (sometimes known the ‘macrogrid').
There’s nothing new or particularly revolutionary about microgrids. The need for backup or autonomous on-site power generation has likely existed for as long as there’s been a requirement for energy. The difference (and the opportunity) is in how we power these microgrids.
Militaries throughout the world have long understood the need for autonomous power at forward operating bases and more permanent facilities. Energy has usually been provided by fossil-fuelled generators - which require a continual intake of fuel.
This comes at a massive cost, both in money and lives. Over 3,000 American soldiers or contractors were killed in attacks on fuel supply convoys between 2003 and 2007 in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2009 report by the US Army Environmental Policy Institute puts the estimate at one casualty for every 24 convoys.
Additionally, modern military energy demands are increasing - from batteries required to charge the infantryman’s night vision goggles, comms and GPS, to the suites of sensing and electronic warfare systems embedded in combat platforms. This all makes a pretty strong case for more resilient power sources.
Missile defence, US: 2018
In 2011, a series of tornadoes and storms knocked out power for a week at Redstone Arsenal, home to the US Army’s various missile programmes.
This was the catalyst for the development of a 114-acre, renewable solar energy complex and battery storage system, sponsored by the Department of Defence (DoD) and built by a private contractor.
The result: the DoD expects to save $1.5 million over the term of the agreement, and now has a facility that can reliably power itself (without petrol) in the event of another outage.
Before the flood: Japan 2011
The Sendai Microgrid is hardly a household name. But the catastrophic earthquake and consequent tsunami of 2011 in which it proved itself certainly are.
This little grid (a mere 1 MW in capacity) was initially a proof of concept project launched by Japan’s main telecom company, NTT.
Located on the campus of Tohoku Fukushi University, the Sendai Microgrid was likely the only part of Sendai city to remain online as the lights went out. The grid kept the hospital in operation - no small accomplishment considering the sudden influx of patients.
Batteries saw another use in tsunami-ravaged Japan.
No petrol? No problem
With massive disruptions to Japan’s petrochemical infrastructure following the disaster, a fleet of electric-powered vehicles sprung into action. Designed to be nimble enough to traverse the ruined landscape, the real benefit of these vehicles was in their ability to operate for sustained periods in the field, and then refuel at normal electrical outlets.
Though unable to haul heavy cargo, the cars proved themselves particularly as a vital means of transport for people (such as essential personnel and the newly displaced).
Powering through an uncertain future
Batteries in their many forms are essential to a safe and secure future. Of course, batteries have a long way to go yet.
And the form these batteries take, exactly, remains to be seen. The current incumbent, lithium-ion, is a time-tested generalist, but is still unsuited for various applications. Further research must be done to diversify our battery choices and improve existing battery technology.
Additionally, thought must be given to ensure supply of the materials used to produce these batteries. Cobalt is one such example, much of which comes from Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Progress in battery recycling will allow us to reuse more of these limited materials, and new kinds of battery will allow us to utilise different, more easily-accessible materials. Not only will this increase energy security, it will also decrease the energy we expend obtaining the raw materials required to produce batteries.
The future is uncertain - but we can be almost certain that batteries will play a larger part in it.