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How can the UK amp up its electricity transmission network?

06 September 2023

The UK needs new energy transmission infrastructure, but delivering it requires public buy-in, writes ICE Policy Fellow Ian Parke.

How can the UK amp up its electricity transmission network?
Recommendations to amp up the UK’s transmission capabilities are complex, unclear, and don’t do enough to bring the public along on the journey. Image: Shutterstock

Allow me to introduce to you to Mr. Smith.

I know what you’re thinking: what’s Mr Smith got to do with amping up the UK’s electricity transmission network?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Recent recommendations from the UK’s energy networks commissioner could make Mr Smith, and many others like him, a beneficiary of a 21st-century energy system – reliable, low-carbon, and secure.

But Mr Smith has other issues.

A 21st-century energy system needs a network to deliver it

Mr Smith lives in the village of Ardleigh in Essex, which can be dated back to the Domesday Book.

Ardleigh sits in some of the most quintessential countryside to be found anywhere in England.

But developers want to build electricity pylons near the village. Why?

Well, the UK is investing heavily in offshore wind to meet its power needs.

Sizewell C in Suffolk aims to generate enough electricity to power six million homes.

And there are plans to build electricity interconnectors between the UK and Belgium and the Netherlands.

All this power needs infrastructure to transmit it.

Underground cables are far too expensive to use for the whole route, making pylons the most realistic solution.

Ardleigh’s residents, however, view the proposals as unwelcome. The developer’s offer of compensation isn’t enough.

Mr Smith and his neighbours are not alone. Indeed, their reaction is becoming common in local communities across the UK.

The UK aims to decarbonise energy by 2035

The Net Zero Strategy outlines the government’s ambition to fully decarbonise the power sector by 2035.

Just think about that for a minute. Twelve years to achieve this desirable, but extremely ambitious, goal.

The industry, with government support, has made some tentative strides.

In June 2022, the government appointed Nick Winser as the UK’s first electricity networks commissioner.

His task is to advise the government on how best to accelerate the delivery of transmission infrastructure.

Winser’s report, published last month, is hardly Tales of the Unexpected.

The commissioner reports that demand is expected to increase significantly up to 2035 – fivefold, in the case of solar.

Unsurprisingly, several renewable energy developers and other connection customers have been promised connection in the 2030s.

Equally unsurprising is the comment that the distribution system will need significant investment.

At its current pace, delivery will fail to meet the 2035 deadline.

How can the government speed up transmission delivery?

The commissioner makes several sensible recommendations, starting with improving strategic planning and streamlining planning consent.

Wisely, the commissioner believes the change process should build on the current experience, including stakeholder engagement.

A high-level, end-to-end process map identifies that delivery of the required transmission system can take place within seven years. This is a challenging programme set at a breakneck pace.

There’s little, if any, allowance for slippage.

Delay in one area – such as the first in the chain, planning – will have a substantial impact on the tasks that follow.

The commissioner’s recommendations also mention very little on resources – human resources in particular. This is a significant barrier to achieving the seven-year timeline.

The UK needs far more engineers than are currently available to undertake this important work. Alongside the infrastructure itself, the country must invest in the skills and jobs to deliver it.

Spatial energy plan

The commissioner recommends a strategic spatial energy plan to bridge the gap between policy and development.

This is a commendable idea but appears at first review to be overly complex.

The plan seeks to merge many energy network plans and requires the coordination and cooperation of multiple government departments and devolved administrations.

All within seven years – a challenging prospect.

There’s no room for error

Considering the work needed and the tight timescale, I’m concerned the government will fully implement the report’s recommendations without further discussion or debate.

This is fine, but several things are missing – not least a sense of brevity, clarity, and a continual process of review, learning, and adaptation based on what does and doesn’t work.

Without a doubt, the UK needs new energy transmission infrastructure to deliver its net zero ambitions.

The electricity commissioner’s recommendations to achieve this are so ambitious that there’s no room for error in implementing them.

Unfortunately, the recommendations are complex, unclear, and don’t include bringing the public on the journey.

The government must bring the public on the journey

Forcing an issue on the electorate tends to turn out poorly.

The most pressing issue for some consumers is the rapid installation of visible infrastructure, such as pylons, in potentially inappropriate locations.

The commissioner suggests offering lump sum payments to ‘host communities’ to “ease widespread resistance to new installations”.

The problem is that Mr Smith would rather keep his local environment as it is.

The biggest challenge facing the government is making Mr Smith, and many others like him, active and willing participants in the energy transition.

The former energy secretary recently told energy leaders that the UK was “absolutely committed” to net zero.

Unfortunately, most of the people who can help him weren’t in the room when he said it.

Watch this space

The ICE and All-Party Parliamentary Group for Infrastructure (APPGI) will soon begin a programme of work on public engagement with net zero to better understand how to resolve issues like this.

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  • Ian Parke, co-chair, Low Carbon Energy Advisory Board at Institution of Civil Engineers