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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Pee-Powered Fuel Cells, Flexible Storage Revolutionize Renewables

Big news has emerged on the energy front, with a major application of a technology that harnesses the power of pee to generate electricity and new debate about the need for energy storage.

The University of the West of England’s Bristol Bioenergy Centre (BBiC) is appealing to festival goers’ senses of humor to power this year’s Glastonbury Festival. The Centre’s signature Pee Power urinals have been installed across the festival grounds equipped with a revolutionary technology that transforms urine into electricity.

The energy generating urinals have been used to power cellphone charging stations and lights for the last two years, but the 2017 festival marks the first time they will be used to illuminate information displays.

Microbial fuel cells are the heart of the Pee Power technology; electricity is generated when the fuel cell’s live bacteria consume the urine. As the bacteria breaks down the urine, electrons are produced. The electrons are forced through an electric circuit, thus creating electricity.

“This unit is primarily about public engagement and Glastonbury Festival gives us the chance to showcase our technology to potentially thousands of people. The festival updates are one way of showing that Pee Power and the microbial fuel cell technology can be developed for a whole range of uses,” said Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, Director of the BBiC.

Pee Power is the result of a collaboration with NGOs Oxfam and Dunster House to improve refugee camps and areas of the world with limited access to sanitation or electricity. The Pee Power urinals will be trialed in Uganda later this year, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Meanwhile, a new report by the European Academies of Science Advisory Council (EASAC) has emerged, which points to an impending shakeup in electricity storage thanks to the emergence of household batteries, plug-in electric vehicles and small-scale renewables. But according to energy experts, storage as a technology is overrated.

Pumped hydroelectric storage has to-date been the predominant way in which electricity is stored on a large scale, but the deployment of lithium-ion batteries is growing fast and growth is also expected in other energy storage technologies, such as solar panels and small home storage systems, providing a flexible alternative to grid storage. However, researchers say hydropower is likely to continue to be a mainstay in terms of large-scale grid storage applications.

“Pumped hydroelectric storage and possibly lithium-ion batteries appear to be ready for large-scale deployment over the next few years in grid-connected applications in the EU,” the report says.

Storage is an important tool for balancing load and introducing flexibility to the grid system, but experts such as Professor Mark O’Malley of McGill University and University and say that it isn’t fundamentally needed.

“The good about storage is that it’s incredibly versatile and can contribute to all aspects of the electricity system,” said O’Malley. “The bad is that it has to compete with everything else. There is nothing that storage can do that something else can’t do … It’s very flexible, do doubt about it, but in many ways, other technologies can do the same thing.”

Others, such as Claude Turmes, a Green MEP in Luxembourg, agree. Turmes expects a boom in flexibility services as renewables continue to gain momentum, but admits that the storage question is exaggerated. “The one question we will have to deal with as policymakers is do we want a subsidy regime for storage, or can it be delivered by market forces alone?” he said. “It’s a damn difficult question to know how exactly we will drive storage.”