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To realise the UK’s offshore wind potential, we must strengthen our electricity grid

Embracing renewable energy to meet net-zero targets is reliant on a better connected energy grid with greater capacity.

By Nicola Riley

Generating clean energy through renewable sources sits at the heart of the UK’s net-zero ambitions. Offshore wind is often regarded as the standard-bearer of this cause. With up to 50GW of offshore wind installation committed by 2030, it should supply at least one third of British electricity demand within a decade if these projects are delivered.

However, the potential of offshore wind can only be fully realised if the UK’s power grid can support this growing supply and provide greater capacity. With demand for electricity expected to grow by 50 per cent by 2035 as the UK weans itself off energy produced by fossil fuels, the grid will come under significant strain. If the UK is to successfully meet its net-zero targets and realise the many benefits of a world-class offshore wind industry, reforms to the way this vital infrastructure is designed, planned and built are necessary.

This is not a new realisation. Nearly 200GW of electricity from offshore wind projects is already waiting to be connected to the grid – enough to power 150 million homes. The system operates as a first-come-first-served queue and currently more than 600 renewable energy projects are stationary in queues of up to 13 years to begin operation. This arduous waiting game for developers means costs rise and schemes risk floundering, deterring potential future investors in the UK’s net-zero economy, who might see projects in other markets such as the United States or mainland Europe as a surer return on investment.

A swift expansion of onshore infrastructure must take place to alleviate the pressure on our congested network. This means more sub-stations to physically connect a wind farm offshore to the onshore network and more pylons and electrical lines to move energy around the country.

A move towards a holistic network design could go some way towards delivering this. In August, an independent report by Nick Winser, the UK’s electricity networks commissioner, outlined how the government could accelerate grid connections, with one recommendation including a more strategic approach to designing our power system.

Currently the UK grid is a radial network, where individual wind farms are separately connected to the grid. As more wind farms are brought online, it is neither cost- nor time-efficient for developers to work separately. Instead, industry needs a more cohesive approach with greater opportunities to collaborate with the government, the electricity system operator (ESO), transmission owners (TO), and the supply chain at one table.

National Grid’s ESO has proposed an integrated approach for transmitting electricity from offshore wind farms in a potential meshed network, referred to as the Holistic Network Design (HND), where offshore wind farms share transmission lines before the combined energy is connected to the grid. Not only does this approach free up space in the queue, but it also reduces connection costs and the impact on the natural environment with fewer cables needing installation. Further, a meshed network can manage periods of greater or fewer windy days more effectively, since the grid won’t be as affected by lower output from one wind farm or one particular UK region.

WSP has undertaken an observational study analysing the challenges in delivering the HND by its target date of 2030, identifying the need for close collaboration between the industry, developers and the government to address multi-faceted challenges arising from regulatory, technological, financial, and operational complexities. Taking advantage of the digital tools that are available would also support this connection, by standardising how energy projects operate. As the UK shifts to an integrated network, technologies that can be implemented across the entire system, or within regional hubs, can ensure more efficient delivery and generation, which will further facilitate the expansion of offshore wind.

This is why additional investment into other renewable energy and enabling technologies such as storage is needed, supporting offshore wind’s capacity and growing a diverse portfolio of sources to feed into a balanced energy mix. No solution can operate on its own. Instead, every digital tool or energy source must be seen as a piece of a puzzle in a larger whole-systems approach to achieve net zero.

Likewise, community engagement can determine the successful delivery of onshore infrastructure. The cost difference between above-ground and underground electrical lines can be stark, with pylons significantly cheaper than below-ground solutions. But, as we have seen, many communities are reticent to support pylons, for instance, when less noticeable (but more expensive) options are an alternative. For our expanding grid connection infrastructure to be a resounding success, communicating the importance of decarbonising our energy system to local people is vitally important.

As such, collaboration between government, the private sector and communities to strengthen and expand the existing grid is the key to unlocking the potential of offshore wind in the UK. Without it, we will really struggle to deliver on our net-zero targets by 2050 and interim energy generation targets in the 2030s. A net-zero future cannot be achieved piecemeal; every sector must work together to support the energy transition and ensure development isn’t hindered by obstacles in system planning or supply chains. Only through better connection and increased capacity within the grid will offshore wind be capable of powering the UK’s future net-zero economy.