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Why the UK needs a major energy grid upgrade now

As Britain shifts from fossil fuels to renewables, infrastructure must support the increase in electricity demand.

By Carl Trowell

Britain’s energy landscape is on the cusp of a radical transformation. The past few years have seen some monumental milestones in the decarbonisation of the UK’s power system. Zero-carbon power has outstripped fossil fuels in the electricity mix for the first time since the industrial revolution. Today, a single rotation of the blades on a Dogger Bank wind turbine can produce enough clean energy to power an average British home for two days.

However, there is growing recognition that more needs to be done to deliver the radical rethink of the UK’s electricity networks that decarbonisation demands. The criticality of this to the current political and economic agenda was reflected in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, which contained a raft of measures to accelerate an overhaul of the grid.

The scale of transformation needed is unprecedented. The government has set an ambitious target for an additional 50 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind capacity by 2030. Additionally, the wider net-zero transition is expected to result in a 50 per cent increase in demand for electricity by 2035 as we move away from a reliance on fossil fuels and towards clean energy to heat our homes, and power our transport networks and businesses.

To meet this massive increase in demand, and to transport renewable energy from where it’s generated to wherever it’s needed, the UK will need to build five times more electricity transmission infrastructure over the next seven years than has been constructed over the past three decades.

National Grid is working diligently towards this objective, launching the Great Grid Upgrade – the largest overhaul of the electricity grid in generations. The Great Grid Upgrade not only includes 17 new offshore and onshore transmission projects over the next ten years, but will also modernise existing infrastructure – some of which was built over half a century ago.

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But to deliver the Great Grid Upgrade at the scale and speed necessary will require a step change in how we plan, consent, consult and build. Currently it can take up to ten years to build new transmission infrastructure, of which seven years is planning. That’s why we welcome the bold plans set out by the government in the Autumn Statement, which demonstrate a clear commitment to accelerating the completion of net-zero projects.

The government’s response to a report by the UK’s electricity network commissioner, Nick Winser, also sets out some distinct recommendations, including a commitment to a strategic spatial energy plan and streamlining the consenting process for vital net-zero infrastructure. These measures are particularly welcome and together with a networks plan, which is hardwired into planning law, will bring urgency to building.

While we welcome and support a swifter planning process, we also recognise how important it is that communities remain at the heart of the energy transition, and that’s why we welcome the government’s recognition of this in its community benefits proposal. Balancing the need for infrastructure with its impact on local people is essential and we believe those that host energy infrastructure must receive fair and enduring benefits for doing so. It’s vital they see the tangible advantages that infrastructure can bring through a benefits strategy that can both meet the needs of local communities and bring broader socio-economic and regional benefits too.

The energy transition represents the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century. Not only will it provide economic growth and jobs for future generations, it will ensure greater energy security and lower people’s bills. That’s why the importance of getting the Great Grid Upgrade right cannot be overstated.

We’ve made significant progress but now is the time to ensure there is clear and collective focus on delivery. With a shared commitment the UK can move from bold ambitions to bold actions. Delivering the Great Grid Upgrade will not only capture the economic opportunity of the energy transition, but also keep Britain on target to achieve its climate goals. There is no time to lose.

[See also: Net zero’s dirty secret]

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