Download the Foresight review of energy storage

Executive summary

Our reliance on energy stretches from meeting our basic human needs to enabling the technologically advanced world that we live in. We use energy to keep us warm or cool us down; it powers infrastructure to provide water, food, healthcare, transportation and communication. The energy we depend upon is mainly generated by converting stored chemical energy into energy that we actually use. The stored energy we are very familiar with is fossil fuels, such as gas, oil, coal, or renewable sources, such as wood. Our demand for energy is growing at the same time that the world is looking to decarbonise. 

This review explores the role of energy storage and how it can impact the safety of life and property around the world. Energy storage does not stand alone: it is part of energy systems which are integral to the infrastructures that ensure our individual and communal safety. 

Energy storage is a key enabling technology for low carbon power, transport and heating infrastructures. By facilitating better use of renewable sources, disruptive system infrastructure upgrades can be postponed. For critical systems, a vital autonomy is afforded, enabling these services to continue to function during critical events. Thermal storage allows us to make use of waste heat and cold, and can be integrated into delivery chains, protecting food and medicine. The energy systems enabled by storage provide remote communities or developing nations with the opportunity to leapfrog costly infrastructure development. 

The review describes the different forms of low carbon energy storage that currently exist and highlights how the choice of energy storage used is very much dependent on the application. The battery that powers your mobile phone could be combined with many others to store excess energy to power a city, but this may not be the safest or most efficient way to store and release the energy when needed. The review considers the application of energy storage through the lens of safety and the opportunities and threats to safety that are associated with the use of low carbon energy storage. 

In assessing the safety aspects of these new forms of energy storage, it is important to remember that fossil fuels themselves are not inherently safe, being flammable, environmentally damaging and at the heart of many accidents. The risks are largely addressed through engineering and operational management. We accept these risks in our everyday life because of the essential role that such energy systems play. 

Furthermore, recent research highlights the fact that fossil fuel emissions not only alter the world’s climate, but also pose serious health risks. Cleaner, more sustainable options are therefore consistent with long-term safety. 

However, the use of more low carbon energy sources and, in particular, renewable electricity generation, may create new challenges for delivering reliable system operation - with associated impacts on safety - for example solar power is not generated at night. Energy storage technologies can restore this reliability and hence will be increasingly required as the grid decarbonises. 

Energy storage devices can contain hazardous chemicals, which need to be safely sourced, contained, transported and disposed of. The complexity of existing systems is increased by the integration of storage, potentially making it harder to predict and manage failures. This impacts first and second responders*, as well as installers and other operators, who need to understand how to manage the new hazards. Considerations for secondary markets need to be addressed, to prevent unexpected hazards being exported to other owners or countries. 

Safety and sustainability can be incorporated into the design of energy storage devices and systems to mitigate many of the risks. Safety engineering can be applied to all stages of the device’s manufacture and use, and standards can provide guidance for best practice. Infrastructure planning, which takes all components of the system, local resources and requirements into account, can allow the most effective deployment of the technology. The location of energy storage and the degree to which it should be either distributed or centralised can impact safety as well as cost. 

Through this review, the Foundation is informing public debate about the low carbon energy storage technologies that will become more embedded into the infrastructure on which we depend. It provides a balanced view on the risks and opportunities these new technologies bring and sets out what is needed to safely adopt these technologies and avoid creating a new set of hazards. The review has highlighted the following as priority areas in energy storage: 

• storage systems support 

• through-life safety and sustainability 

• public engagement, skills and knowledge 

• maximising value from demonstrators.