No transition without transmission: renewing the national grid for the renewables age

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Upgrading the national grid is one of the United Kingdom’s most important and complex infrastructure projects in decades. While the private sector can step up to meet the technical challenges, winning hearts and minds of the British public will be key, writes Eloise John, Energy lead for UK and Ireland at AECOM.

In the next seven years, the UK plans to add another 37 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity to hit its target of 50 gigawatts by 2030. This huge undertaking is a critical element of the country’s transition to independent and secure renewable energy supplies, made more urgent by the surging electricity prices that followed the geopolitical disruption of 2022. It can only work, however, if the transmission system to carry electricity from turbines in the North Sea to towns and cities is modernised as well.

In short, there is no transition without transmission.

To meet the challenge, National Grid has embarked on The Great Grid Upgrade, calling it “the largest overhaul of the electricity grid in generations.” This massive modernisation programme will entail, in just the next seven years, building five times more electricity infrastructure than constructed over the past 30 years.

If deployment lags, the implications could be serious. In his much-anticipated independent report, Nick Winser, the Electricity Networks Commissioner, acknowledges the “extraordinary progress” made in developing renewable and clean energy sources in the UK to date, but adds that this “magnificent achievement will be wasted if we cannot get the power to homes and businesses.”

His warning is stark. “The implications of being able to build wind generation faster than the associated connections to customers will be serious: very high congestion costs for customers, and clean, cheap domestic energy generation standing idle, potentially for years,” he says.

However vital the rapid deployment of strategic transmission infrastructure is, it is also hugely challenging, not least because it will bring giant pylons and new substations within sight and earshot of hundreds of communities that will have understandable concerns about its impact.

Finding the right balance between addressing people’s concerns and facilitating the efficient development projects critical to the UK’s decarbonisation journey is central to a planned new consenting process for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs), but that will not arrive in time for this programme.

While the government considers Nick Winser’s recommendations for institutional change and until the proposed planning reforms for NSIPs come into force, work to modernise the grid must power ahead regardless.

The National Grid therefore needs to obtain, in record time and for a project of almost unprecedented scale and complexity, the necessary consents within the limitations of an existing regime that was not designed for speed.

It will be a tricky balance to strike — one that the private sector will be required to step up to meet.

Given the unprecedented scale and complexity of the task, infrastructure organisations will have to bring the best ideas, people and technical knowledge to the project as well as experience in the planning and delivery of large-scale domestic and global infrastructure projects — both within the energy sector and beyond — to meet the challenge.

In tandem, however, the government will need to consider and implement without delay the thorough but “bold” institutional reforms and recommendations that Winser makes in his report to reduce the delivery time to the required timescale of seven years.

While the private sector can rise to the technical challenges, winning people’s hearts and minds will be essential to avoid disruption and delay. Clear, public guidance around community benefit is one route. Another, as Winser points out, is a national information campaign that not only sets out the need for a grid refresh but communicates “the importance of this work to our country and to the environment.” In this, the government has a critical role to play.

Eloise John leads AECOM’s Energy business within the United Kingdom and Ireland

This blog was originally published on 23rd October 2023

Feature Image Source: Chris Barker on Unsplash

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