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£58bn plan to rewire Great Britain expected to spark tensions along route

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A £58bn plan to rewire Great Britain’s electricity grid to connect up new windfarms off the coast of Scotland is expected to trigger tensions with communities along the route.

National Grid’s electricity system operator (ESO) has mapped out power “motorways” across Great Britain to allow for the biggest investment since the 1960s.

The new “blueprint” recommends a “high-capacity electrical spine” running onshore from the north-east of Scotland through to the north-west of England, alongside a complex collection of cables stretching along coastlines.

Four onshore windfarms would be connected on a route from Peterhead in northern Scotland to Torness in the south-east of the country. Undersea cabling would connect those windfarms to Lincolnshire and Kent.

In 2022, the ESO released a £54bn plan designed to connect 23GW of offshore wind. The new blueprint should enable a further 21GW, as a result of a leasing round for developers building projects on the seabed held by the crown estate Scotland, which manages land and property owned in Scotland by the monarchy. Profits generated are passed on to the Scottish government.

Policymakers are attempting to revamp the grid in the face of long-term shifts in where power is generated in Great Britain. The grid was formed in 1935 around a coal-focused system centred on industrial powerhouses in Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and the north-east, with nuclear later playing a significant part.

A drive towards low carbon power and the growth of the offshore wind industry have necessitated greater need for strong connections between the east coast of Scotland and the urban centres of England, where demand is greatest.

Scotland already generates nearly 15GW of renewable power, far outstripping the peak winter Scottish demand of 5GW, and the government has suggested offering reduced bills to areas where demand is lower than supply.

Late last year, the government said properties closest to new transmission infrastructure could receive up to £1,000 a year off electricity bills over 10 years.

The ESO welcomed government plans to allow communities hosting energy projects to have “financial incentives”. However, there are questions over whether this would quell local opposition.

The network revamp threatens to have political ramifications. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has vowed to “get tough” on local people who oppose onshore wind turbines, while Labour’s goal to decarbonise the grid by 2030 relies on projects being connected swiftly. The government hopes to hit the same target by 2035.

Tom Burke, the chair of the E3G thinktank, does not believe the incentives will make a difference. “People see their lifestyle and their economics differently. Look at HS2 – ultimately you cannot do things that people do not want without some political price,” he said.

Josh Buckland, a partner at the consultancy Flint Global and former energy adviser at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said: “I do not think financial incentives alone will be enough to prevent local opposition.”

The Guardian revealed last month that the ESO was working on the blueprint, which also suggests a “connections hub” off the coast of Lincolnshire to reduce the impact on protected marine areas off East Anglia, where opposition to electricity projects has been vociferous.

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The ESO said three times as much undersea cabling would be laid than onshore infrastructure by 2035 and estimated its blueprint would add £15bn to the economy, creating 20,000 jobs a year.

The bulk of the ESO’s plan will be carried out by the three transmission companies: National Grid Electricity Transmission, SP Transmission and Scottish and Southern Energy Networks Transmission.

There is growing debate over the cost of decarbonising the grid and reaching net zero, as the renewables industry faces supply chain upheaval and rising costs.

The energy regulator, Ofgem, last week voiced concern that the costs associated with achieving net zero would hit lower-income households hardest.

Buckland said any future government would have to decide how the costs of large infrastructure investment would be met, whether through taxes or consumer bills, and whether “protection” would be given to vulnerable households. Between £20 and £30 a year is now spent on network costs through consumer bills.

Burke added: “If you do smart things – like prioritising insulating homes, community schemes and embracing battery technology – then bills go up a bit. If you do stupid things, like focusing on delayed nuclear power projects, then they go up more.”

Nick Winser, a commissioner at the National Infrastructure Commission who advised the government on accelerating new electricity infrastructure last year, said: “Transformational investment in the electricity network is needed to ensure we can make the most of low-cost, low-carbon wind power. Getting this right will help to reduce energy bills for consumers and enable the deployment of electric vehicles and heat pumps.

“It’s critical that this investment is delivered quickly.”

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