While the media was dominated by the news of new oil and gas licenses granted in the North Sea, for many the biggest story of the Government’s Energy Week came right at its end. Released on Friday, the long-awaited independent report on accelerating electricity transmission network deployment by Electricity Network Commissioner, Nick Winser, was published. It is now what the Government do with this that may be the biggest bellwether of their net zero commitment.
Speak to anyone in the business of renewables or energy storage and the one issue they all agree needs reforming is wait times for grid connection. Nick Winser’s report provides a series of recommendations that he says could halve the time needed for development from the average twelve to fourteen years it currently takes.
The strength of industry feeling was perhaps demonstrated most vigorously by Zoisa North-Bond, chief executive of Octopus Energy Generation, who told City A.M. that Grid connection wait times are a “national scandal” and the “greatest obstacle” on the path to net zero.
Winser’s report highlights that a failure to achieve dramatic transmission build time improvements will “jeopardise” the statutory commitment to Net Zero, erode energy security, and lead to higher capital and operational costs.
A new network, hard politics
What is clear from this report is that the need for new infrastructure will be essential for delivering on the UK’s net zero objectives. In Great Britain, around four times as many new transmission networks will be needed in the next seven years as have been built since 1990.
This means a lot more outdoor substations, overhead lines, and transmission towers which are seen as being politically unpopular with constituents and some members of the Cabinet; evidenced recently by the actions of the Environment Secretary, Therese Coffey, who organised a petition against power cables being routed through her constituency and several counties in the East Anglia.
Community acceptability is therefore essential for delivering net zero so that communities hosting transmission infrastructure can benefit from supporting this vital delivery. To mitigate some of these concerns, Winser’s report suggests residents and communities should receive defined direct payments for hosting new visible infrastructure. The strength of opposition to such infrastructure, however, can be expected to only increase in the years ahead with Conservative MPs such as Bernard Jenkin saying that “in 31 years in politics, I have never known a single issue raise so much passion in my constituency,” as local campaigners make their voices heard against plans for 112 miles of high voltage transmission line which will run from Norwich to Tilbury in Essex.
Nick Winser agrees that citizen engagement will need to be considered, as people and the communities in which they live and work will be impacted by transmission infrastructure construction. These impacts may be seen as negative (e.g. loss of visual amenity) or positive (e.g. economic opportunities) but in either case, there is a need for constructive engagement to ensure that citizens have the benefit of clear information to enable proper individual and collective assessment.
No easy path to delivery
The challenge for the next government will be to deliver on promises. Electricity demand is expected to be around 50% higher by 2035 and 100% higher by 2050, following the roll-out of heat pumps and electric vehicles.
The UK has the longest queue to connect to the electricity grid of any country in Europe, with about 200 gigawatts worth of electricity projects waiting for a grid connection, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Whoever wins the next election, timely decisions over grid connection and the necessary infrastructure will be required if either party is going to deliver. The Conservative’s plans to decarbonise the UK’s electricity system by 2035, or Labour’s policy to deliver one hundred per cent clean power by 2030, will both require a massive undertaking – and what happens to the grid will be one of the central issues if these targets are going to be met.
This offers a real opportunity for businesses and organisations who want to help deliver the energy transition to make themselves known and start engaging with the Government and opposition, both nationally and at a local level.
The Government will now consider the recommendations before responding to Nick Winser’s proposals later this year.