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Current± Chats: Zenobe Energy’s James Basden on choosing inertia over frequency response

Image: Zenobe Energy.

Battery storage company Zenobe Energy has had a busy start to 2021, launching a “world’s first ever” Virtual Battery Option, winning flexibility contracts with WPD and developing Scotland’s first transmission-connected battery storage project.

This spurt of activity follows the company raising £150 million from Infracapital in November 2020, helping it target an additional 500MWh of storage and 1,000 electric buses.

Zenobe was set up around a vision to try to make clean power accessible, the company’s founder and director James Basden recently told Current±. Over the next year it's aiming to push on with this in the UK, as well as expanding into other markets whilst keeping a key focus on electric buses and the surrounding infrastructure and large-scale batteries.

Basden explained the challenges of greening the transport sector, and why the compant has chosen a keener focus on inertia than frequency response.

How have you found working with often cash strapped councils?

Councils are facing many competing demands from social services through to the provision of bus services. The Zenobe solution enables them to optimise the use of the money they have available for transport.

This is because we can provide the full upfront funding for EV buses. Since we also provide guarantees that the buses will be charged when needed, we therefore remove the technology and operating risks as well. This removes a huge barrier to change and enables the council to deliver both better bus services and to deliver on their climate change commitments.

The other thing we do, is we take away the operating risk. Running electric buses is very different from running a diesel bus. And equally, the technology is changing quite quickly, and you don't want to be stuck with a bus that was seen to be great in year one, but by year five, everybody goes, 'Oh, you bought a camel'. So we take that all away, and we provide a guaranteed service so all the council needs to do is to provide the driver and the person to plug in the bus to charge it.

Now, the ULEB type grants and so on have been really helpful as a kickstart, but I'm a great believer that subsidies should only be there to incentivise the market to get going and then once it's up and running, you’ve really got to remove them because they distort the market. We would rather have an unsubsidised market where it's basically just a competition - so long as it's fair competition - than a subsidised market that distorts things.

Do you think there should have been a greater emphasis on greening the energy sector and transport in the Budget?

It's always a delicate balancing act, and typically evolutions last and revolutions fail. I think overall, given the context of everything that's going on, the Budget could have been more ambitious, but I understand why it wasn’t.

But there's some things that we need to make a choice around as a country around in the long, medium and short term strategy. We are quite good at early stage R&D, but as a nation we have been historically very poor at commercialising it and getting it to scale. Really, that's where the government should be helping and incentivising but not getting in the way; it really has to be up to the private sector to make this stuff happen.

If I think what we're doing, we are iterating and changing how we run our business and how we apply the technology on a weekly basis, going as fast as we can and the structure and mechanisms of government just can't cope with that at all.

So they need to get out of the way, but put in the legislation and the regulation to enable that to happen. Some things are good, such as the potential of an independent system operator, which has been signalled but should have happened by now- it's taking too long. That's a good thing, undoubtedly.

The system operator needs to be skilled up so that it's less dependent on information from the transmission operators (TOs), because they lack the technical engineering knowledge sometimes and are very reliant on the TOs to provide it.

Understanding how we use the vast amount of data that comes out of all these new technologies that we're applying, and how that can be commercialised, is a really important point. And that's something we've definitely got to be doing.

And then, the fact that we are the biggest offshore wind provider in the world and yet we buy all the kit in. We're buying in our batteries from abroad, because there isn't a European battery integrator of scale really, all these sorts of things are great opportunities. And that's where we should really focus and get those in a medium and longer term strategy.

Could you tell me a little about why Zenobe chose to focus on services like voltage and inertia, rather than frequency response?

Services like frequency balancing are not locational, you can do them anywhere. But actually, the network and the way that the power systems network is going to change over the next decade is very dramatic.

At the moment, the capacity from England to Scotland is about 5.7GW. In nine years, it's going to have to be 16GW and the networks just can't cope with this. This presents a big problem but also a big opportunity. When you have a network with a lot of renewable power on it, you have low inertia, which means that you need to respond faster with frequency, but the fastest thing that happens is the drop off in voltage rates.

Ultimately, there's a lot to be done, and at Zenobe, we think battery storage will be critical to enabling the uptake of renewables everywhere. If you think about it, what we've got now is only a third of what we need in nine years’ time, which makes it a massive job in a huge market.


Molly Lempriere Deputy Editor, Current±

Molly Lempriere is deputy editor at Solar Media, responsible for its UK-facing publications Solar Power Portal and Current±.


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