The Renewables Conundrum

Posted by Professor Yulong Ding and Omar Saeed on 14 March 2018
Photo of electricity pylons reflected in water against a sunset sky


The energy systems of both the UK and China face similar challenges - though at different scales.

The UK is struggling to meet carbon emission targets set for the next few decades and its energy sector faces many daunting challenges, while the Chinese government has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emission per unit of gross domestic product by 40-45% by 2020 based on 2005 levels – a colossal challenge given that some 70% of the country’s electricity is currently generated by burning fossil fuels.

Decommissioning coal and gas fired power stations and adopting renewables at an increased pace are the most sustainable, wise and, long-term, likely the only viable solutions for creating stable, sustainable energy systems in the UK and China.

Phasing out coal-fired power stations will reduce the short-term availability of cheap energy. Increasing renewable penetration requires cheap, reliable, and rapid response measures to deal with fluctuation in the renewable energy supply in order to avoid blackouts and brownouts.

Energy Down the Drain

While it is clear that renewable energy must be the focus of our future energy mix, the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. This poses questions about what we do with electricity generated from renewables at the ‘wrong times’, and how we maintain secure energy supplies at an affordable price when there is low wind and little sunlight.

Ramping output at large power stations up and down is very expensive and can cause reliability and safety issues; while by no means a silver bullet, energy storage has the potential to be a major part of a comprehensive solution to these challenges and has become a focus of engineers and researchers around the world.

Hundreds of millions of domestic boilers, refrigerators and air conditioning units utilise Thermal Energy Storage, and more than 90% of the total global energy budget centres around thermal energy conversion, transmission and storage; this technology provides a key linkage between primary energy sources ranging from coal and gas to solar and geothermal, and secondary energy sources (electrical and mechanical).

Thermal Storage Solutions

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), in the UK, and the Ministry of Science and Technology and National Natural Foundation (NFSC) in China have invested in Thermal Energy Storage research, such as the UK-China Grid Scale Energy Storage competition launched by EPSRC in partnership with NSFC in 2013.

Bringing together world-leading experts from academia and industry in both countries, the collaboration led to a successful joint proposal led to the development of a successful proposal from the Birmingham Centre for Energy Storage (BCES) at the University of Birmingham to develop novel Thermal Energy Storage materials, components and devices and to integrate them in energy networks. The specific focus was on phase change materials (PCMs), which are substances that absorb and release thermal energy during the process of melting and freezing. Phase Change Materials recharge as everyday temperatures fluctuate, making them ideal for a variety of everyday applications that require temperature control.

Composite phase change materials

A pilot scale manufacture process was put into practice at the Birmingham Centre for Energy Storage, following additional EPSRC support, which led to our contribution to the world’s first composite Phase Change Material (cPCM) demonstration wind power plant in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. The region is the windiest in China yet has little industry to consume the power generated by plants.

The 6MW/36MWh demonstration plant, financed by the China General Nuclear Corporation and built by the Nanjing Jinhe Energy Co.Ltd, industrial partners of the EPSRC-NSFC NexGen-TEST project, has provided heat for 60,000m2 of space, harnessing 10,000KWh of otherwise wasted wind power and reducing the environmental impact of the energy system by 3,100 tonnes of CO2 and 10 tonnes of SO2 per year, equivalent to ~1200 tons of coal per year. It has proven a feasible model for large-scale low carbon heating with effective integration of a wind power station and was awarded the 2017 International Energy Storage Energy Innovation Award at the sixth World Energy Storage International Conference and Expo in Beijing.

Applications for the UK are considerable, for example in Scotland, where rich wind resources could help to address heating needs that form a very large portion of overall national energy consumption.

New UK-China Industrial-Academic Partnerships

Technology demonstrations are critical as they help demonstrate the market potential of new products, moderate perceived investor risk and showcase equipment that would otherwise fall into the technology ‘valley of death’.

At Birmingham Centre for Energy Storage we have maintained demonstrating technologies as a focus of the Energy Research Accelerator, an exciting capital project focussed on next generation thermal energy, geo energy, energy storage and energy systems that was established following £60 million of investment by the UK government and £190 million from industry.

This unique partnership, created by local industry partners, five leading research universities and the British Geological Survey will develop new technologies, bring down the costs of energy and innovate to drive growth, support productivity and create jobs within the Midlands region.

Through NexGen-TEST we developed a wider base of industrial partners in China, and we have since developed further research collaborations with partners that include the UK-China Forum for Thermal Storage; the Joint Laboratory with the Global Energy Interconnection Research Institute Europe; and the Joint Centres for Energy and Environmental Research and Education, and Large Scale Physical Energy Storage.

Among the most exciting collaborations is the development of the International Thermal Energy Manufacturing Accelerator (ITEMA) at the University of Birmingham in conjunction with the Manufacturing Technology Centre and Loughborough University. International Thermal Energy Manufacturing Accelerator will be leveraging Industry 4.0 and other novel manufacturing approaches with aim of scaling up and modularising the production of technologies that will improve the efficiency of thermal energy systems.

Shaping the Future of Energy Policy

It is clear that a modest amount of research funding, placed in the right hands, can deliver a great deal of impact. In this case that impact has been felt in both the UK and in China.

International collaboration can provide very fruitful research partnerships but universities are often held back from pursuing these due to a lack of funding for travelling. New innovations, exciting scientific breakthroughs and longstanding partnerships should not be stifled by geographical boundaries. Opportunities through the UK’s research councils which directly link researchers in different countries are very valuable and must continue to be considered as funding mechanisms to the future.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Professor Yulong Ding
Job title: Director
Department: Centre for Energy Storage
Organisation: University of Birmingham

Professor Yulong Ding is a multi-award winning researcher who holds the founding Chamberlain chair of Chemical Engineering and RAEng- Highview Chair of Cryogenic Energy Storage and is the founding Director of Birmingham Centre for Energy Storage at the University of Birmingham (UoB), founding Co-Director of Joint University of Birmingham – GEIRIEU Lab for Energy Storage Research, and Co-Founder & Senior Advisor of Joint Research Centre for Physical Energy Storage Research between University of Birmingham & Institute of Engineering Thermophysics (IET) of Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

He has published over 450 papers with ~250 in peer reviewed journals (H-Index of ~ 52) and filed over 40 patents. He joined Birmingham in October 2013. Prior to his appointment at University of Birmingham, he was Professor and Director of Institute of Particle Science & Engineering at the University of Leeds, and founding director (2010 – 2014) of the joint Institute for Energy Storage between University of Leeds and Institute of Process Engineering of Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Omar Saeed
Job title: Project Manager
Department: Centre for Energy Storage
Organisation: Unviersity of Birmingham

Omar started his career in the higher education sector as a Researcher, at the Centre for Low Carbon Futures, which was a collaboration between four universities in the North of England and the University of Birmingham. He then took a position as a Research Manager with the Midlands Energy Consortium, a regional research collaboration between five universities (including Birmingham once again) and the British Geological Survey, where his role involved creating new and maintaining existing collaborations between academic members of staff.

After spending a short time assisting with the initiation of the Innovate UK - funded Energy Research Accelerator, Omar took up the post of Project Manager at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Energy Storage (BCES), starting in 2017. Omar is responsible for managing multiple Birmingham Centre Energy Storage projects with industry, intergovernmental organisations and those funded by UK Research Councils, including the EPSRC funded Multi-Scale Analysis for Facilities for Energy Storage (MANIFEST) project.

Omar has a background in environmental science and completed his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Leeds before undertaking and MSc in Environment, Economics and Sustainable Development at University College London.