By Scott Poulter

Picture the scene: it’s a spring day in the UK, in 2049. The weather has been unseasonably warm, an increasingly regular occurrence since the late 2020s when global average temperatures coasted more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

But now a cold front is sweeping across the country. Traditionally this would have seen consumers turning up the thermostats on their gas boilers, but nowadays a fair amount of space heating is through heat pumps. And much of the electricity for the heat pumps comes from the sea. 

Offshore, wind turbines with capacities of more than 25 MW per machine deliver almost half the electricity on the grid. Another quarter comes from onshore wind and solar power, with nuclear supplying most of the balance. 

This massive amount of clean energy generation means UK consumers no longer need worry about the price of oil or gas—or supplies of coal. 

But it also means the grid is at the mercy of the weather, and specifically the wind, which by 2049 could make up almost 148 GW of the UK’s 274 GW of grid-connected generation capacity, according to DNV’s Energy Transition Outlook UK 2022. 

By 2049 wind power could make up almost 148 GW of the UK’s 274 GW of grid-connected generation capacity

In 2049, the UK grid is set up to make the most of this free energy source. Around 9 GW of wind power is not even connected to the electricity system but powers massive electrolysers to create green hydrogen that can replace natural gas in the UK’s small remaining fleet of thermal turbines. 

The grid itself optimises processes such as electric vehicle (EV) charging to coincide with wind availability, and when the breeze falls a network of interconnectors helps ship clean energy into the UK from continental Europe and Ireland. But one of the greatest assets on hand is energy storage. 

The UK has long had a supply of storage in the form of pumped hydro, but geographical constraints mean this capacity will not have increased significantly by 2049. Instead, the key to the UK’s ability to work with the wind will come from battery storage. 

Starting in the 2020s, the UK sees a surge in standalone lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery installations. From the mid-2020s onwards, large-scale Li-ion battery storage also begins to be routinely installed alongside solar. 

The upshot is that by 2049 the UK is home to almost 190 GWh of utility-scale battery storage. That is a whopping 73 times the total amount installed at the end of 2022. The technology’s mass adoption will be helped by cost reductions of up to 80% between now and 2050, DNV estimates.

“Li-ion is today’s dominant battery chemistry for utility- scale storage, EVs and information and communication technologies,” says the classification society. 

“Approximately 95% of storage projects in which DNV is currently involved through feasibility assessment, development and construction, are Li-ion.”

The UK’s 2049 battery capacity will help store vast amounts of wind power when it is available, overcoming grid constraints as energy moves from massive fixed-bottom and floating offshore turbines to load centres inland. 

The UK grid was never designed to receive electricity from the sea, and much less from remote locations such as the Scottish coast, which is now a hotbed of offshore wind development. 

That means the grid connections to places such as Southeast England could be strained during periods of high offshore wind production. 

Having utility-scale battery storage systems placed at strategic points along the way allows electricity to be stored and released over time, so that less energy is wasted. 

As well as helping to deliver energy to load centres, the UK’s battery network ensures there is a steady supply of power to the nation’s thousands of EV charging points. 

In 2049, EVs themselves act as an extension of the energy storage network, using a technology called vehicle-to-grid to feed electricity back into the system as and when needed. Another problem that these battery systems help to overcome relates to power quality. 

Electrical networks operate within tightly controlled voltage and frequency ranges, to avoid the risk of overloading and blackouts. Historically in the UK, voltage and frequency regulation has been provided by the continuous spinning of coal, gas and nuclear turbines. 

With most of this thermal capacity long gone by 2049, the job of stabilising the grid falls to batteries. 

These can respond to changes in grid frequency and voltage within seconds, nudging the system back towards its optimum parameters as fast-changing peaks and troughs in renewable generation threaten to push the network off balance. 

Despite their outsized contribution to the grid in mid-century UK, don’t expect battery plants to dominate the landscape like the massive coal-fired power stations of yesteryear. 

don’t expect battery plants to dominate the landscape like the massive coal-fired power stations of yesteryear

Lithium-ion battery systems come in standard-sized shipping containers and can be located discretely in any vacant brownfield or industrial site that has a grid connection. They are silent and non-polluting. If you placed them behind a tall hedge, you would not know they were there. 

The 2049 vision described here is obviously speculative, but while the details may vary there is no doubt about the direction of travel. 

The UK is committed to a low-carbon energy future and even without climate change there is no way the world can continue relying on fossil fuels for energy indefinitely. The UK’s leading position in the offshore wind sector makes the technology a natural choice to power the country in the future. 

Any country that relies on renewable energy will need to deploy considerable amounts of energy storage, and here the UK is already one of the top 10 markets in the world for installed capacity. 

Investors in UK energy storage therefore enjoy a privileged position, operating in a market that leads the world yet is only starting to realise its true potential. 

You don’t need a crystal ball to recognise that the true opportunity for investment is not a quarter of a century away, or even a decade from today—it is right here, right now, and growing all the time. 


Publish date: 26 June, 2023