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Battery life: the race to find a storage solution for a green energy future

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From a windswept sea wall on England’s north Kent coast, Marie King points to miles of empty marshy farmland where there will soon be thousands of solar panels and one of the country’s largest battery installations.

A mile from the village of Graveney’s Norman church, hundreds of shipping containers full of battery cells will help deliver power to the UK grid. It will provide a service essential to managing the increasing use of wind and solar power, the supply of which fluctuates with the weather, and delivering on politicians’ promises of a greener future.

“It’s the scale of this project that worries me,” Ms King, a retiree who used to work in financial services in London, says. “We’re not against renewable energy — we just think it needs to be in the right place.”

Such battery plants are set to become a familiar sight across the UK and elsewhere. Renewables such as wind and solar are becoming cheaper than fossil fuels in most parts of the world, but they need storage to be a viable, stable source of energy. Last week, UK prime minister Boris Johnson vowed to install enough wind turbines to power every home by 2030, but that will require solutions to manage the intermittent supply of energy. 

That is where batteries — devices which store electricity as chemical energy — fit in. Lithium-ion batteries, used in mobile phones and Tesla electric cars, are currently the dominant storage technology and are being installed from California to Australia, and most likely Kent, to help electricity grids manage surging supplies of renewable energy. Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, has said he expects the company’s energy business — including the supply of solar and huge lithium-ion batteries for the grid — to be as big as its car business in the long term.

Marie King on England’s north Kent coast. She says of the nearby battery storage project: 'We’re not against renewable energy — we just think it needs to be in the right place'
Marie King on England’s north Kent coast. She says of the nearby battery storage project: ‘We’re not against renewable energy — we just think it needs to be in the right place’ © Henry Sanderson/FT
A protest sign stands in the village of Graveney, where hundreds of shipping containers full of battery cells will help deliver power to the UK grid
A protest sign stands in the village of Graveney, where hundreds of shipping containers full of battery cells will help deliver power to the UK grid © Henry Sanderson/FT

But along with lithium-ion batteries, cheaper, longer-duration storage technologies — most of which are not yet cost effective — will be required to fully replace fossil-fuelled power plants and allow for the 100 per cent use of renewable energy. At the moment, gas-fired power plants bridge the gap from renewables to provide stable supplies of energy for longer than current batteries can.

Part of the UK government’s green industrial revolution launched last week is a £1bn energy innovation fund to help commercialise new low-carbon technologies. These include a liquid air battery being built by Highview Power outside Manchester. 

Without storage it will be harder for countries to significantly reduce their use of gas and coal-fired power plants and decrease the harmful effects of climate change, from rising sea levels to extreme weather conditions. 

From battery technologies that use abundant raw materials to volcanic rocks, tanks full of liquid air, and systems that lower weights down abandoned mine shafts, companies are racing to develop the next breakthrough that will unlock large-scale renewable energy by mid-century. It’s a quest backed by several prominent business leaders, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son. 

Cleve Hill near Graveney, where Hive Energy is planning to build its solar and storage site. The company is deciding which technology to use for its battery but is likely to opt for lithium-ion
Cleve Hill near Graveney, where Hive Energy is planning to build its solar and storage site. The company is deciding which technology to use for its battery but is likely to opt for lithium-ion © Cleve Hill

“If we want full decarbonisation then all these technologies will be required,” says Rory McCarthy, an analyst at the energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. “But the scale of investment you need to make a dent on anything is billions of dollars.”

A supply chain ‘with zero inventory’

Every day electricity grids must constantly match supply with demand — a feat that becomes much harder when you strip out coal and gas-fired plants that provide a reliable, steady supply of energy. Donald Sadoway, a Canadian chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, likens the grid to the “world’s largest supply chain, with zero inventory”.

In the first quarter, renewables provided a record 47 per cent of the UK’s electricity. Yet that success created a problem just weeks later when energy demand fell by as much as 20 per cent after the first national coronavirus lockdown in March. The National Grid’s job becomes more difficult when electricity generation from renewables reaches about 50 per cent of the total — it needs the help of big spinning turbines of fossil fuel plants to moderate volatility in the system. 

With demand falling it meant the renewables share of the energy mix went above half and the engineers at the National Grid’s control centre were forced to perform a delicate balancing act, part of which involved increasing the use of storage — vindicating, say advocates, expansion of the technology.

Area chart showing Projections for global energy storage capacity Cumulative gigawatt-hours deployed

It proved to be a test case for how the grid will look in the future, when there is a greater share of renewable energy, says Peter Kavanagh, chief executive of Harmony Energy, which provides power to the grid from six Tesla lithium-ion batteries in Poole on England’s south coast.

“Solar and wind are the cheapest form of generation in multiple countries, but you need that storage to make it work once you have got the renewable penetration to a certain size of your energy mix, like we saw during Covid,” he says. “Covid has . . . proven the business case [for battery storage] five years in advance.”

More than 97 per cent of the world’s energy storage is currently done by using electricity to pump water up to a high reservoir and then releasing it, which drives a turbine to create even more electricity, so-called “pumped hydro”. The reservoir of water acts as a way of storing energy. But these systems are challenged by geography and could be limited by increasing water scarcity in the future.

Lithium-ion batteries are currently the dominant storage technology and are being installed worldwide to help electricity grids manage surging supplies of renewable energy
Lithium-ion batteries are currently the dominant storage technology and are being installed worldwide to help electricity grids manage surging supplies of renewable energy © Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg

The advantage of lithium-ion batteries is that they can be placed anywhere and can provide power to the grid very quickly, as they do in electric cars. They can respond in milliseconds and generally provide up to four hours of storage, helping grids deal with sudden outages in electricity generation, but are less cost effective in the longer term. In the UK, the majority of large-scale lithium-ion batteries provide energy for 30-90 minutes.

And local residents such as Ms King worry about their safety, after a spate of battery fires over the past few years. There were 33 fires at installations in South Korea between 2017 and 2018 alone, and there have been more recent incidents in the UK and US.

A patchwork of technologies

Alternative technologies could enable safer storage of large amounts of energy for longer periods of time, which would allow even greater integration of wind and solar. But they need to be scaled up quickly in order to meet rising demand and become cost competitive.

In January, the California Energy Commission, the US state’s primary energy policy and planning agency, issued a call for long-duration energy storage — defined as providing energy for over 10 hours — enough to store a day’s worth of solar energy for overnight use. 

The Hornsdale Power Reserve, which houses the world's largest lithium-ion battery, made by Tesla, near Jamestown in South Australia
The Hornsdale Power Reserve, which houses the world’s largest lithium-ion battery, made by Tesla, near Jamestown in South Australia © David Gray/Reuters

One of the winners of the tender was Invinity Energy Systems, a company that uses large batteries based on vanadium, a raw material used by the steel industry to increase the metal’s strength. These so-called Redox flow batteries — first developed by Nasa in the 1970s — use large tanks of separately charged electrolytes to store energy, which makes it easier to expand capacity than conventional batteries.

Matt Harper, the company’s chief operating officer, says vanadium batteries can store eight to 10 hours of renewable energy during the day and deploy it during peak demand, or overnight, helping to put a floor under power prices. They are also “more likely to put out a fire than start one,” he says, because they use a water-based electrolyte. They also last longer than lithium-ion cells — and can go for 30 years.

In the centre of Dalian, north-east China, Rongke Power is building the world’s biggest vanadium battery. At 800 megawatt-hours, it would be more than three times the size of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery installation in California. It would help Liaoning province’s electricity grid better integrate wind power. 

“We would not be allowed to install a large-scale lithium-ion battery in the city centre, [due to safety concerns],” says Li Bin, Rongke’s marketing director. “The safety issues in lithium-ion batteries have not been solved.” 

Yet vanadium prices are highly volatile and surged to $127 per kilogramme in November 2018 before falling to $25 per kg today, which could have an impact on the cost of production.

Wind turbines off the coast of Essex, England. UK prime minister Boris Johnson vowed to install enough wind turbines to power every home by 2030
Wind turbines off the coast of Essex, England. UK prime minister Boris Johnson vowed to install enough wind turbines to power every home by 2030 © Dan Kitwood/Getty

MIT’s Prof Sadoway believes that technologies need to be based on more abundant metals than those used in lithium-ion and vanadium batteries such as aluminium, sulphur, calcium and antimony. In 2005 he helped develop a liquid metal battery that uses calcium and antimony and a molten salt electrolyte. The company that developed it, Ambri, was backed from the beginning by Mr Gates, who invested in it after watching Mr Sadoway’s chemistry lectures online.

Ambri’s battery aims to store energy for longer than six hours and Mr Sadoway believes that its cost can go below $150 a kilowatt-hour when it is deployed at scale, which would make it cheaper than current lithium-ion systems. “We want to undercut lithium-ion,” he says.

The company has yet to find a large commercial customer and Mr Sadoway warns over the long timeline for developing new battery chemistries: “This is tough tech, it’s heavy industry, it’s not like writing code,” he says. “This is really hard.”

‘Stone age’ thinking

Others looking for storage options are avoiding batteries altogether and trying natural and physical solutions similar to pumped hydro — which can store energy for up to 20 hours — but without the need for natural reservoirs.

Outside the German city of Hamburg, a large grey concrete windowless building has the words “Welcome to the new stone age” written on the front in purple letters. The plant is run by Siemens Gamesa, the world’s second-largest wind turbine manufacturer, and uses 1,000 tonnes of volcanic rock from Norway to store 130 MWh of energy in the form of heat, providing enough energy for about 3,000 German households, or roughly 750 electric cars.

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Electricity is used to first heat the volcanic rocks to at least 600C. The energy can be stored for up to a week, but the target is to dispatch power overnight. The system can be installed in coal-fired power plants that are closing and use their turbines, according to Hasan Oezdem, head of innovation projects at Siemens Gamesa.

“You can turn them into giant storage facilities,” he says. “The biggest utilities are looking desperately for a second life option as you can’t sell them — nobody is buying coal-fired power plants. We offer to keep it running with a green purpose.”

On the outskirts of Manchester, a similar project is taking shape at the site of a decommissioned power plant — using vessels of liquid air rather than volcanic rock. Highview Power broke ground on its 250 MWh plant at Trafford Energy Park in November after winning a £10m grant from the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

A vanadium pit in Bahia state, Brazil. Matt Harper of Invinity Energy Systems, which uses the material, says vanadium batteries can store eight to 10 hours of renewable energy during the day and deploy it during peak demand
A vanadium pit in Bahia state, Brazil. Matt Harper of Invinity Energy Systems, which uses the material, says vanadium batteries can store eight to 10 hours of renewable energy during the day and deploy it during peak demand © Yasuyoshi chiba/AFP via Getty
© Yasuyoshi chiba/AFP via Getty/AFP via Getty

“Lithium-ion is great technology, but it’s too small for the challenges the grid is seeing,” Javier Cavada, the company’s chief executive, says. “The business model of long duration [storage] is to make sure all the wind and solar generation is utilised.”

Lithium-ion: in the driving seat

Despite their various advantages, these technologies will find it hard to beat the manufacturing scale of lithium-ion, which has been driven by the surge of investment in electric cars over the past decade. The price of lithium-ion batteries fell 87 per cent in real terms between 2010 and last year, to about $156/kWh, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

That price is likely to fall further. Globally, battery installations for grid storage are set to rise to 741 gigawatt-hours by 2030, most of it lithium-ion, led by the US and China, according to Wood Mackenzie. One GWh is enough to power 1m homes for an hour.

In addition, hydrogen, which is produced through the electrolysis of water using electricity, could emerge as a competitive solution for storing energy for longer periods of time. Hydrogen can be stored in underground caverns or depleted oil and gasfields. 

Siemens Gamesa's plant near Hamburg, Germany, which uses 1,000 tonnes of volcanic rock from Norway to store 130 MWh of energy in the form of heat
Siemens Gamesa’s plant near Hamburg, Germany, which uses 1,000 tonnes of volcanic rock from Norway to store 130 MWh of energy in the form of heat © Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy

Hive Energy, which is planning the Cleve Hill solar and storage site near Graveney, is deciding which technology to use for its battery but is likely to opt for lithium-ion, the company’s managing director Hugh Brennan says.

“It’s like trying to not buy an iPhone,” he says. “It’s also more profitable to provide short-term energy storage to take advantage of differing power prices.” The company plans to install at least 200 MWh of batteries, he says.

In Graveney, however, placards stand outside the church and alongside the road with pictures of gas masks and the slogan “No solar power plant!” Ms King and other residents say they are not against the expansion of renewable energy, but they hope that another storage technology will be used for the site.

“For all the risk it’s not giving them a huge ability to store energy,” Ms King says. “If there was different technology that was safer, clearly we would welcome it.” 

Additional reporting by Nathalie Thomas in Edinburgh

Beyond lithium-ion: energy storage technologies

Storage of renewable energy requires low-cost technologies that have long cycle lives — where they can be charged and discharged many times — are safe and can store enough energy cost effectively to match demand.

Vanadium redox-flow batteries use two tanks containing positive and negatively charged liquid vanadium electrolytes that are pumped past a membrane in a cell. The batteries have less degradation than lithium-ion and a longer cycle life.

Liquid air is cooled to minus 196C, after which it is stored in tanks. It is then heated, which drives a turbine to generate power. An alternative uses heated compressed air to store energy in purpose-built caverns.

Gravity storage involves lifting heavy blocks up and down abandoned mine shafts as a way to store and generate energy.

Thermal energy storage Matla, a company backed by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, stores energy as heat in the form of molten salts. The company says the technology can last longer than 20 years and is suitable for six-plus hours of storage.

Liquid metal batteries uses metals that naturally separate when heated to form a cathode and anode separated by a salt electrolyte. Once initially heated the battery maintains its high operating temperature by generating heat on discharge and charge.

Low-cost batteries using cheap raw materials such as iron, sulphur and zinc offer alternatives to lithium-ion battery technology. Zinc-based battery developer EOS, for instance, says its battery has capacity to discharge energy over three to 12 hours. Form Energy, a start-up backed by Bill Gates, says its battery can store energy cost effectively for up to 150 hours

Hydrogen using electricity to produce hydrogen is a way of storing energy, but there is a substantial loss of energy in the process, making it less efficient than batteries.



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Analysis

Huawei’s fall hits growth of Sony’s chip business

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Growth of Sony Group’s semiconductor business has slowed, reflecting a plunge in shipments of image sensors for smartphones to Huawei Technologies as a result of the US-China trade war.

Although Sony has avoided a fall in the volume of shipments thanks to orders from other Chinese smartphone makers, the recovery of earnings appears likely to be delayed until the fiscal year of April 2022 to March 2023 because of weakened demand for sensors for high-end smartphones.

As Samsung Electronics of South Korea, which is strong in processing sensors for midrange smartphones, catches up, Sony is halfway towards recapturing the smartphone market.

“We cannot achieve an earnings recovery in the year through March 2022,” said Terushi Shimizu, president and CEO of Sony Semiconductor Solutions, at a press briefing on June 3.

This article is from Nikkei Asia, a global publication with a uniquely Asian perspective on politics, the economy, business and international affairs. Our own correspondents and outside commentators from around the world share their views on Asia, while our Asia300 section provides in-depth coverage of 300 of the biggest and fastest-growing listed companies from 11 economies outside Japan.

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For fiscal 2021, the semiconductor arm of Sony Group expects its operating profit to decline for the second consecutive year to ¥140bn ($1.26bn). The projection reflects changes in the smartphone market structure resulting from the trade friction between the US and China.

Huawei had a global market share at the 4 per cent level in terms of shipments in the January-March period, according to US research firm IDC. With the US government banning the export of American technology to Huawei, the Chinese company saw its market share plunge some 14 percentage points from the same quarter of 2020, when it ranked second.

At the expense of Huawei, Samsung, Apple of the US and three Chinese smartphone manufacturers — Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo — expanded their shares.

Changes in global smartphone market shares

Sony commands half of the global market for image sensors in value. Growing demand for high-definition smartphone cameras, and the trend of using two or more cameras in a smartphone in recent years, have enabled Sony to expand shipments to Apple and Huawei on the back of its advanced technology of producing high-end sensors.

With Huawei losing its momentum, demand for cutting-edge sensors for high-end smartphones has weakened. Sony thus increased shipments to the three Chinese smartphone makers which primarily manufacture middle- and lower-end phones. While sensors for such phones are each priced low, the makers demand improvements in image quality to attract consumers.

Samsung has set an eye towards capitalising on the “new normal” created by the trade friction between the world’s two largest economies, in a bid to recover its lost ground.

Samsung ships nearly 300m smartphones per year, most of which contain image sensors it produces on its own. While having stable demand, the company is strong at producing high pixel sensors used in midrange smartphones and is enjoying growing demand.

In the global image sensor market, Samsung, with a share of 20 per cent, is trailing Sony, with its 50 per cent share. With Samsung boasting microfabricating technology needed for high pixel sensors, Shimizu said, “We are actually falling behind as far as high pixels are concerned.”

But, he added, “we will add new value using technology cultivated in the field of high image quality.”

Terushi Shimizu, president and CEO of Sony Semiconductor Solutions, speaks at a press briefing on June 3 © Masaharu Ban

Samsung has a large number of manufacturing facilities, including those for memory chips and central processing units. Sony will spend ¥700bn on production facilities in its semiconductor business under a three-year plan through fiscal 2023, up 20 per cent from the preceding plan. But if the importance of microfabrication technology increases, Samsung may gain an advantage because of its greater leeway for investment, according to a research company.

Sony is also expected to take time before reducing its reliance on the volatile smartphone market. Although the company positions image sensors for automobiles as a growth market and keeps boosting annual sales by 50 per cent, the business is still small in scale. Collaborating with its “Vision S” prototype electric vehicle project, Sony plans to develop a high-performance sensor capable of detecting objects even in the dark and sell it to American and European automakers.

Sony will also challenge for a new business model. While Sony has engaged in the sale of image sensors, it is attempting to establish a recurring model of collecting fees on a continuous basis. Specifically, it will use a sensor equipped with data-processing functions of artificial intelligence it has developed. Data, therefore, can be processed both in the cloud and in the sensor so that the volume of communication can be reduced.

For example, the sensor can be used in a camera at a cashless payment retailer with no cash register and improve the performance of street monitoring cameras.

Sony’s AI image sensor has found its way into smart monitoring cameras the city of Rome will put into use in June to optimise the operation of buses by sensing congestion at bus stops or emit light to pedestrians walking through a red light.

Image sensors with data-processing functions of artificial intelligence, developed by Sony, are promoting the rise of new core semiconductors for smartphones (Photo courtesy of the company)

The semiconductor business centred on image sensors was positioned as an engine of growth when Sony was rehabilitating itself. In fiscal 2019, it contributed to Sony’s earnings, logging more than ¥1tn in sales and an operating profit ratio of 22 per cent to sales.

Sony Semiconductor has propped up the revival drive despite such difficulties such as damage inflicted on its local plant by a series of earthquakes in Kumamoto Prefecture in 2016.

While striving to address radical changes in the smartphone market, Sony Semiconductor is being tested for whether it can develop new growth sectors such as image sensors for automobiles and AI image sensors.

Cutting-edge semiconductors are also drawing attention from the viewpoint of national security as the government has drafted a policy of courting overseas manufacturers.

The procurement of logic chips has become difficult as even Sony farms out most of production to overseas manufacturers. Asked whether Sony Semiconductor will launch production, including a joint venture project, for stable procurement, Shimizu admitted to the difficulty of producing them on its own in terms of both technology and cost.

“Generally speaking, it is extremely meaningful to receive state support,” Shimizu said, suggesting the need for government financial assistance for production.

A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on June 7, 2021. ©2021 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved

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Kamala Harris takes heat handling knotty vice-presidential portfolio

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US vice-president Kamala Harris gave a widely panned television interview while visiting Guatemala this week. 

Asked why she hadn’t been to the US-Mexico border, where an influx of migrants is putting a huge strain on local communities, Harris first dismissed the question and said, “We’ve been to the border.” Pressed, she laughed and said: “And I haven’t been to Europe.” 

Her comments drew criticism and underscored the political dangers that the number two official in the White House faces as she juggles a cumbersome, and expanding, policy portfolio.

Harris was in Central America as leader of the Biden administration’s response to the border problem, including the thorny question of how to address migrants fleeing north from the troubled countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

She has also been handed the nearly intractable task of shepherding contentious voting rights and police reform legislation through a sharply divided Congress. She has hit the road to sell President Joe Biden’s sweeping infrastructure plans. In addition, she has also taken an interest in black maternal mortality and other racial equity issues, including tackling vaccine hesitancy among African-Americans. 

Harris’s first foreign trip as vice-president exposed what detractors and allies alike say are her shortcomings as a politician and vulnerabilities should she run again for president. Harris, a former senator from California, abandoned a floundering primary bid for the White House in late 2019. 

Her comments earlier in the week to NBC News sparked outrage, particularly from Republicans who are hammering the administration over migrants. Meanwhile, she took flak from fellow Democrats for urging migrants not to come to the border in the first place. 

Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist, pointed to the vice-president’s failure to effectively convey her message on the trip.

“If this is your debut as vice-president on the international stage, you want to give your best performance, and she certainly can do better,” Marsh said. 

Harris made history at her January swearing in, becoming the first woman, the first black person and first Asian-American to serve as vice-president. She holds outsized power as the tiebreaking vote in a Senate evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. But the other duties of a vice-president are less clearly defined. 

People close to the administration say that Harris has proven a deft counsellor to the president and a near constant presence at the White House, attending regular briefings, offering Biden advice and appearing at his side for big speeches. 

Biden himself served as vice-president under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017. When he announced Harris as his running mate last summer, he said he hoped that she would provide advice as he did to Obama. 

“When I agreed to serve as President Obama’s running mate . . . he asked me what I wanted most . . . I told him I wanted to be the last person in the room before he made important decisions,” Biden said. 

He added: “That’s what I asked Kamala. I asked Kamala to be the last voice in the room.” 

Harris is hardly the first vice-president with difficult assignments. Most recently, Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s vice-president, headed the White House coronavirus task force. 

“The vice-presidential tasks are such that usually, if you are successful, they become the president’s and the administration’s accomplishments. If you are unsuccessful, they become yours,” said Kenneth Baer, the founder of consultancy Crosscut Strategies. He was a speech writer for vice-president Al Gore in the Clinton administration and Gore’s ill-fated 2000 presidential bid. 

Harris supporters contend that her challenging portfolio only underscores the faith Biden has placed in her.

“Any one of those issues would be a full-time job for most people,” Marsh said.

Many Democrats argue Harris faces undue criticism, from Republicans in particular, given her identity as a woman of colour. But others admit she made missteps in Latin America and say that her refusal to correct course — Harris later had a frosty exchange with a Univision TV anchor about the border crisis — only remind people of her shortcomings as a presidential candidate in 2019.

“What I think you have seen in the past few weeks . . . are some of the issues you saw during the campaign,” Marsh said. “At different points during the campaign, she did not perform particularly well. Other days, she was spectacular.” 

Looming over Harris’s term is the political future of Biden, who is 78. Her allies say that she is focused on supporting the president as he seeks to push through his legislative agenda ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, when control of both chambers of Congress will be up for grabs. Next week, as part of her voting-rights remit, she will meet state legislators from Texas, where Democrats recently blocked a state bill that would have restricted access to the ballot box. 

“There is a sense . . . that she is focused on her future as opposed to the job, and I just don’t think that is true,” said Dylan Loewe, a former speech writer for then-vice-president Biden who also ghostwrote Harris’s memoir. 

“The last thing that she wants for her future presidential campaign, whenever it is, is for the storyline to be that she was focused on the future and not the president, and that she was not the same kind of vice-president to Joe Biden as Joe Biden was to Barack Obama.”

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Big weddings may be allowed despite expected delay to lockdown easing

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Boris Johnson will consider proposals to allow larger weddings to go ahead in England, despite a likely delay to the June 21 easing of England’s lockdown.

Speaking at the G7 summit in Cornwall, the UK prime minister said the government would be cautious in its approach to ending lockdown restrictions, which senior Whitehall officials said would be delayed for four weeks.

“What I can certainly say is we are looking at the data, continuing to do that, but what you can certainly take is . . . the road map was always cautious but irreversible and in order to have an irreversible road map, we’ve got to be cautious,” he told the BBC.

Johnson will meet senior ministers on Sunday to sign off on an expected delay to the easing due to the spread of the Delta variant of Covid-19.

But ministers may still sign off on plans to allow larger weddings to go ahead. Those with knowledge of the proposals say they will mirror those currently in place for funerals. 

Indoor celebrations will be allowed up to each venue’s Covid-secure capacity, which means social distancing and masks would be required. 

Outdoor celebrations would have an overall cap, which could be 100 attendees. One person familiar with the proposals said: “It’s a completely arbitrary number and I have no idea how it would be enforced.”

Chart showing that roughly 15 million adults remain unvaccinated in England, including around two million over-50s

One senior Whitehall official said it was unclear whether the plans would be signed off. “Boris hasn’t decided but he will do it if it won’t harm the Covid situation.”

The delay to the lifting of coronavirus restrictions in England for a month comes after the prime minister’s chief medical adviser pressed him to postpone the move following a surge in Covid-19 cases.

The restrictions were meant to be removed on June 21, but Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has advised Johnson that a four-week delay to the final stage of the government’s lockdown easing plan was needed, stressing that a shorter delay would be insufficient to control the spread of the virus. Johnson is due to make an announcement on Monday.

The expected delay would come as the NHS races to vaccinate more adults amid a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations across the UK due to the coronavirus variant named Delta. Almost 15m adults in England remain unvaccinated, including 2m people aged over 50, according to Financial Times analysis.

Nine in every 10 new Covid-19 cases are the Delta variant, according to a Public Health England report released on Friday.

PHE data also indicated Delta, first identified in India, is 64 per cent more transmissible than the previously dominant Alpha variant that originated in Kent.

Chart showing that cases are rising steeply in England, and hospital metrics are now also accelerating upwards. Deaths so far show no sign of a sustained rise

With two doses of a coronavirus vaccine showing good protection against infection from the Delta variant, the government is seeking to get more jabs into arms. Currently, 55.4 per cent of the adult population has had two doses.

Johnson was given data on Thursday that outlined the latest analysis of the Delta variant and its potential impact on the NHS. “It is now critical we double jab everyone as quickly as possible,” said one official.

One Cabinet Office insider said: “A delay [to lifting the final restrictions] is the only sensible course of action. It’s our working assumption. The latest modelling is dire and it would be suicide to go ahead with a full easing.”

The government’s medical advisers have modelled the impact of a four-week delay on vaccination levels, concluding that a smaller postponement would not make much difference.

But they believe four weeks would have a substantial impact by increasing the number of adults fully vaccinated with two doses, as well as giving more younger people at least some level of protection from a single jab.

Chart showing that England’s current surge in cases has a much younger age profile than its second wave last autumn, which should make it less lethal

The UK has recorded the highest weekly rate of Covid-19 cases since early March, with 45,895 new infections reported in the past seven days. This is a rise of 58 per cent on the previous week.

Office for National Statistics data showed the infection rate was highest in the north-west of England and among children of secondary school age.

Covid-19 hospitalisations have risen sharply since the Delta variant became dominant, with 884 beds occupied in England on Friday, up from a low of 730 on May 22. They have increased 9.8 per cent over the past week.

The link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths has not been broken by the vaccines, but data suggest it has weakened significantly.

More than half of the 42 people who have died after being infected with the Delta variant were unvaccinated, according to PHE.

With older people much less likely to be infected now due to vaccination than in the infection wave last autumn, the fatality rate is likely to be 75 per cent lower amid the latest surge in cases, according to FT analysis.



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