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Greening the grid

The UK’s energy infrastructure is in desperate need of renewal. Is Labour up to the challenge?

By Megan Kenyon

In 1997, the noises coming out of Labour HQ were all about “education, education, education”. But roll on 26 years and this mantra has been supplanted by a new, more mechanical challenge. In light of the need for better electrical infrastructure to aid the UK’s rapid decarbonisation, Labour seems keen to focus on “the grid, the grid, the grid”. At the party’s annual conference this week in Liverpool, it was all anyone could talk about.

Indeed, it is widely agreed by the environmental and energy sectors that upgrading the UK’s out-of-date power network is essential if the UK is to achieve its net zero ambitions. The current system is a drag on rapid decarbonisation and holds back much-needed economic investment. Currently, it takes up to 15 years for an energy project to be connected up to the grid, with connections mapped to a layout that was set up in the 1950s.

Labour has woken up to the opportunity the grid presents. Central within Keir Starmer’s glitzy conference speech was the assertion that “climate change is an opportunity we can’t pass up” – a phrase that distinguished him from the Prime Minister’s emphasis on net zero’s personal cost. And this was echoed throughout the conference by his shadow cabinet.

At a panel on Monday morning (9 October) hosted by the Green Alliance think tank, Sarah Jones, the shadow minister for industry and decarbonisation, said the UK currently has “grid connections that are being offered in ten to 15 years’ time, and £200bn worth of investment that’s stuck in projects because we can’t connect it”. Jones told attendees that this is something that the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves is keenly looking into, in order to help the country “unlock the infrastructure that we need”.

Sam Dumitriu, head of policy at Britain Remade, told Spotlight that, at the moment, “one of the problems we have with the status quo of grid connections is because supply is constrained”. Dumitriu pointed out that the current way in which projects connect up to the grid is by joining a queue that is not “an efficient means of allocating resources in general”.

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“Because supply is so restricted, it encourages speculative applications,” Dumitriu told Spotlight. “As the cost of delay is so large, suppliers will put in a bid even if, when the time comes and they’re at the top of the queue, they might not be ready.”

[See also: How to actually deliver on our energy commitments]

A better system would prioritise those whose projects are already ready, cutting down the backlog and decreasing wait-times for projects to be connected. “When resources are scarce, you want to allocate them to the highest-value users,” Dumitriu said, “the way of revealing what the highest value use is how much a company is willing to pay.”

“If you know a housing development is willing to pay a lot of money for a grid connection, while a data centre is only willing to pay a little bit then maybe the housing development should go to the top,” he added. Under the current system, however, there is no way to “reveal” who actually needs it.

Still, the government – to its credit – is already making some moves on this issue. When announcing his net zero roll-back, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the UK would be looking to move to a first-come, first-ready system for grid connections. The Chancellor and Energy Security Secretary are expected to make an announcement on this transition shortly, alongside the unveiling of the UK’s first-ever spatial plan for energy infrastructure.

At Labour conference, Jones was clear that a spatial plan is something that the shadow cabinet, and Reeves in particular, is looking into. She described the “architecture of the grid” as being key to Labour’s “whole mission of giving Britain its future back”.

A refreshed spatial plan is importance because our current grid infrastructure is deeply outdated. Richard Blyth, head of policy practice and research at the Royal Town Planning Institute told Spotlight, “We have a grid built in the 1950s largely, which assumed we would still have a lot of large coal-fired power stations.”

However, as the UK moves towards renewable energy, or nuclear options, then connections are required in various places to those originally envisaged in the 1950s.

“The grid needs to change quite a bit in order to deal with both having more renewable energy, and also more electricity overall,” Blyth said. “A national spatial plan for energy would say we know where we’re going to need to reinforce the grid, and we’re going to set out where the key gaps are which need reinforcement.”

A problem that neither party has cracked, however, is how to bring communities on board with this much-needed but often much-opposed infrastructure. Pylons and wind farms are not the most attractive addition to local areas.

As Rachel Reeves told Radio 4’s Today programme ahead of her party conference speech on 9 October, this is a question she is looking to answer by offering communities special benefits. This is a good idea, said Dumitriu, but he pointed out that any benefit will need to be “designed as carefully and as transparently as possible”.

With an election around the corner, Labour has an opportunity to lay out an offering to the electorate to help them in their mission of greening up the grid. But exactly what form that will take remains to be seen.

[See also: The Research Brief: winter is coming]

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