The Challenge of Building New Electricity Infrastructure for the UK’s Net Zero Goals

In the UK’s journey towards achieving net zero emissions, there are two major challenges that need to be addressed. The first, which received significant attention in Rishi Sunak’s recent speech, involves phasing out sales of petrol and diesel vehicles and the future of gas boilers. However, the second challenge, often overlooked, is the reform of planning rules to facilitate the construction of new electricity infrastructure at twice the usual pace.

Aiming to achieve net zero emissions involves a dramatic increase in the country’s use of electricity, which necessitates building new infrastructure. However, not everyone is willing to live near high-voltage transmission lines or pylons. This presents a dilemma for the government, as their target of decarbonizing the power network by 2035 requires navigating local interests and concerns.

In his speech, Sunak mentioned forthcoming reforms to energy infrastructure, which will include the UK’s first-ever spatial plan for that infrastructure. This plan will determine the placement of pylons, cables, and connectors, essentially allowing the integration of offshore wind turbines, solar farms, and new nuclear reactors into the grid. The challenge lies in rewiring the grid to accommodate the location of renewable energy sources, which are predominantly in Scotland and the east, while the existing grid was designed around centrally located coal stations.

One example of the scale of the infrastructure needed is a proposed 114-mile transmission line from Norwich to Tilbury, which aims to transport power from North Sea wind farms to the southeast of England. This project has faced local protests, highlighting the potential clash between national goals and community interests.

The urgency behind building new infrastructure stems from several factors. First, there is already a backlog of projects waiting to be connected to the grid, which could generate over half of the UK’s future electricity needs. Second, constraints within the current system require renewable generators to be compensated for not being able to distribute their output. These “annual constraint costs” are projected to increase significantly by 2030. Lastly, the 2035 deadline for decarbonization looms, necessitating the delivery of major power projects in a shorter timeframe than usual.

To address these challenges, Sunak announced plans to expedite planning for nationally significant projects and overhaul outdated energy policy statements. This could involve central government playing a more heavy-handed role in overruling local objections and potentially legislating accordingly. However, government proposals, such as providing financial incentives to communities near new power lines, may not be enough to bridge the gap between industry certainty and community involvement.

There is also a concern among officials about foreign operators, like TenneT, securing large-scale orders for high-voltage cables in a market with limited capacity. Some argue that UK operators, such as National Grid, Scottish Power, and SSE, should take similar actions or the government should intervene to secure these vital resources.

These challenges are not exclusive to the current government; they would also apply to a future Labour government, which aims for complete decarbonization of the power grid by 2030. In both scenarios, streamlining planning approvals and empowering the government with new planning powers will be critical.

The reform of planning rules and the development of new electricity infrastructure have become the next battleground in the UK’s journey towards net zero emissions.


– Source Article: Author’s knowledge