How do we connect more renewables to the grid?

1 December 2020

In early November, Prospect hosted an online discussion with leading industry experts on how we can rise to the challenge of connecting more renewables to the energy grid in order to achieve the government’s Net Zero targets.

Speakers included SSE’s director of strategy Will Steggals and National Grid’s acting UK corporate affairs director Rhian Kelly.

Here are their opening remarks that they gave to the event, which was attended by Prospect’s energy professionals as well as members from the union’s wider membership. The remarks have been edited for length and clarity.

Will Steggals, director of strategy, SSE Group

A little bit about my job. I cover group strategy, which is about the long-term shape of our group. The short story is that over the last 10 years we’ve been increasingly focused on low carbon, increasingly focused on net zero and increasingly focused on electricity.

Renewables is the obvious place to start. We’re basically a hydro and wind player in renewables.

At the moment we’ve got three flagship projects. One, we’re building in partnership with Equinor, Dogger Bank, which once it’s built will be the world’s largest wind farm.

We’re also in partnership with Total, building Sea Green in Scotland, which once that’s built will be Scotland’s largest wind farm.

Then we’re also building onshore wind. We’re building Viking in Shetland, which once that’s built will be the UK’s most productive wind farm. It’s basically very windy in Shetland and we’re building a very large wind farm there.

That’s quite an exciting opportunity for us to go at for the next five years. All of those projects should add up to roughly about a thousand construction jobs, so we’re helping to create jobs in the green recovery.

We also have a hydro fleet, most of which has been around for over 50 years. As we as we look at connecting renewables and absorbing lots of renewables into the system that hydro fleet, and other people’s hydro fleet, is going to be increasingly important in the storage and flexibility potential that hydro provides.

Most of the growth in our transmission business is about connecting renewables in the north of Scotland and we’ve got a plan, by the end of the next price control, to have connected over 10GW of wind and other renewables. That roughly adds up to about 10 million homes.

Transmission distribution has a huge amount of interest in relation to net zero, particularly when you think about connecting around 10 million electric vehicles to the distribution networks by 2030 and as people turn to electric heating, and making sure we’re making the investments to facilitate all of that.

In terms of opportunities, the interesting thing is just how much the electricity sector is going to grow. When you look at electrification of transport, electrification of heat and decarbonising other parts of industry, that all adds up to a power sector, or electricity sector, that’s doubling or possibly even tripling in size by 2050.

So clearly a lot of investment is needed to meet that, of expanding the sector while also decarbonising it.

People come up with different numbers on these things, but we think there’s probably about £500bn of investment opportunity up to 2050 from doing all of this, particularly in the electricity sector.

Ourselves, we’ve got a plan to invest £7.5bn over the next five years and continue to accelerate investment and beyond.

Aside from this being an imperative to meet Net Zero, clearly there’s an important side benefit from the fact that we need a green recovery and we need to create lots of jobs in the next five years as we come out of a really deep recession. The opportunity to create a huge amount of high quality jobs is quite a positive thing for us as a sector essentially.

At SSE we see a huge appetite for investment in renewables and networks but we do need to make sure we’ve got stable, regulatory environment for all of that.

The development of the transmission grid in terms of unlocking renewables is critical, so I think there’s two elements to that, one is making sure the onshore grid connections are there and allowing transmission companies to invest ahead of need.

I think at the moment there’s a risk that Ofgem tightens the price controls so much that we can’t make those strategic investments that we need to do, and we could be waiting for some of our wind farms, we’re waiting into the 2030s to get a connection, which clearly isn’t fast enough to be on track for net zero.

I think offshore wind grid transmission is interesting because I think we probably do need quite a dramatic change in how we do offshore grids. Up until now it’s been very much a point-to-point type approach with developers connecting directly into the mainland.

I think National Grid ESO put out a report recently showing that you could save up to £6bn billion from having a much more coordinated and strategically planned offshore grid network, so that’s going to be really important issue for the next few years I think.

Another important issue is market design. We’ve got a very effective policy mechanism in the UK for delivering new renewables, the Contracts for Difference mechanism, but going forward it’s all going to be about making the most of existing sites and our existing resources.

So repowering wind farms and extending the life of wind farms is going to become just as important as building new windfarms. We need to make sure we’ve got a policy environment and a market design which brings forward that mix of new and existing renewables that we need.

It’s important to remember wind, solar and other forms of renewables are doing very well. But what we really need is to accelerate the what I call the enabling technologies around wind and solar.

Things like carbon capture and storage, things like hydrogen, all these things that help balance out the variability that you get in wind and make sure that people can get the energy they need when the wind is not blowing.

I also want to touch on consent planning for seabed leasing. It’s a really important issue. When we’re thinking about marine planning, we need to recognise that net zero is one of, if not the most important, priority as a country, and we need a planning consent regime to recognise that.

I think this is big opportunity for the UK. If we can use how we develop the renewables industry to develop a local and low-carbon supply chain, that’s going to stand us in good stead. Not just for UK developments but also to export our skills and capabilities abroad.

Rhian Kelly, acting UK Corporate Affairs director, National Grid

National Grid is a name that everybody knows, but I’m not always sure that everybody knows what we do as an organisation.

We like to think of ourselves as sitting at the heart of Britain’s energy system, so we connect millions of people and businesses to the energy that they use every day. We’re almost like the motorways of electricity and gas.

Net Zero and the aspiration for the UK to get to net zero by 2050 is extremely important for us, and I guess we’ve been thinking through the situation we find ourselves in today of the COVID-19 pandemic. When we come out of that, what is the opportunity in Net Zero for the UK, for local communities and for jobs?

We’ve just put out a report around the opportunity for the UK and all of those coastal communities from using the North Sea as an energy hub, not as an oil and gas hub but in the future as a clean energy hub. So offshore wind, hydrogen, connecting into transport networks and using multi-purpose interconnectors.

The great news is that the government has shown a huge commitment to developing and continuing to develop clean energy, particularly in offshore winds. Recently, Boris Johnson talked about how can we use the North Sea to become the Saudi Arabia of wind generation.

They have committed to deploying 40GW of offshore wind by 2030 and the expectation really is that we’ll end up exceeding that and it could be 75GW or even more by 2050.

The thing about this unprecedented level of offshore wind is it also requires networks and transmission, both offshore to bring it onto the shore, and then onshore to get it into the existing network to make sure that we can spread it across the country and everybody can use it.

What we’re seeing is that about 60% of all the offshore wind developments are coming in along the east coast. This is going to require much more careful planning and coordination, particularly if we do it in a way that minimises the impact of the communities where it’s housed.

Government has been looking at this closely and they have recently set up an offshore transmission network review and we think there are two things that they need to do on this to make sure that we get the right outcome.

First, is to look out to 2030. There’s a lot of investment in offshore wind development today, so we need to make sure that we maintain that investment and that we hit the 2030 targets, but we also need to think post-2030 as we expand even further.

How do we do that in a way that’s more coordinated, that takes into account the environment, takes into account the local the impact on local communities?

The current system is very much point to point. Each offshore wind development creates its own link to the shore, and then we’re obliged to connect it. That has been good until now but that means there’s a lot of connections going in along the east coast and there’s probably an opportunity to do that by shared coastal hubs.

Also, how do we use new technologies more creatively in the North Sea?

We have interconnectors at the moment as part of National Grid and they run literally A to B. But what if we were to plug wind farms into them and they took the energy from those wind farms and distributed it across the cables lying across the ocean?

So we’ve been thinking about how do we innovate in the future to make all of this possible, investable and that we get the benefits for the UK.

We’re working with the regulator to ensure that the regulation, and the regulatory framework, is up to date to allow us to make all of this to happen.

Typically, for all the right reasons, the system at the moment wants us to ensure that we manage impact on consumer bills. We should continue to do that, but with net zero as an aspiration for the country, we’re going to need to find a way of balancing the short-term needs for managing bills but with this need to bring in long-term investment.

The sooner we can do it I think the easier and the cheaper the investment will be.

What we need then is a more coordinated approach to infrastructure that looks beyond what we’re doing today and takes this longer-term approach into mind.

We need the ability for the regime to connect the offshore wind farms in a coordinated way, sensitively to the community and to the environment, and so we wanted this more integrated framework.

We can then draft and design in the innovation to make sure we have this more coordinated approach.

In a way it’s thinking about the art of the possible and getting some of our engineers at National Grid to think through what are the ways of mitigating the overhead lines and the pylons that we build. Can we make them shorter? Can we enable the existing ones to carry more voltage?

So we’re using all of the innovative and engineering brains at National Grid to see what solutions we can come up with to ensure that we can still deliver as much offshore wind as possible down the east coast, but get it into the grid and to everybody across the country.

The final point on this is about local communities. The east coast is an interesting case study because as it happens there are plenty of local MPs who are have important roles in government.

There are a wide variety of stakeholders and a very active community, so it isn’t going to be something where we’re going to be done until we’re absolutely all working together.

Key for us at National Grid is that we are seen as part of enabling the clean energy transition.

We’re absolutely committed to net zero. We want to make sure that, where we have assets like the North Sea, that we’re able to make the most out of them, and we’re able to do that in such a way that we benefit the local communities, we benefit the environment and to generate jobs.

two energy workers


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