March 21, 2024

A 'once in a generation' investment in our grid

With the release of the National Grid Electricity System Operator's "Beyond 2030 Report", we finally have a path to decarbonise the grid.

This week, the National Grid's Electricity System Operator (ESO) announced its plans to decarbonise the grid with a ‘once in a generation investment’ of £58 billion. 

The plan presented in the “Beyond 2030 Report” includes a recommendation to increase offshore wind capacity to 86 GW and deliver it to households across the UK by building a new 'electrical spine'.  

So, why is investment in the grid needed? What actually is an electrical spine, and who is going to pay?

The ESO's role in UK’s path to net zero

The ESO is the UK’s grid operator. At the highest level, this means it is responsible for keeping the lights on. At a more detailed level, it is tasked with the minute by minute balancing of supply and demand of electricity on the grid.  

We know that ESO is working hard to hit the UK government’s decarbonisation plan: a totally decarbonised electricity system by 2035. We also know that clean power is front-and-centre of the UK’s strategy to reach net zero by 2050, and that National Grid is vital to the UK achieving this. But we still have a long way to go.

Last year, gas accounted for 32 percent of Britain’s electricity generation, ahead of 29 per cent from wind, 14 per cent from nuclear and 4.9 percent from solar power (source, National Grid).

These numbers show that the generation mix still has a long way to go to be 100 percent green, and this is before we account for the 65 percent increase in electricity demand projected by 2035 (source Climate Change Committee).  Offshore wind is the most reliable source of renewable electricity here in the UK, so it’s not surprising that the National Grid is doubling down on offshore capacity.

Over the next decade (between now and 2035), the ESO intends to connect up to 86 GW of offshore wind (including the 21 GW proposed in the most recent report).  While this is not the total solution to the decarbonisation agenda, this increase in generation will help the UK to meet peak demand.  We’ve mentioned in previous blogs that having capacity to meet demand is just one part of the puzzle, with flexibility and storage becoming critical as the grid relies more on renewable energy.  

This increase in offshore wind generation positions Britain to have 20 percent of global offshore wind farm capacity by 2035; second-largest in the world, behind China.  By the mid 2030s, Great Britain may have the single largest offshore wind fleet in Europe and would exceed the offshore wind capacity of the United States of America.

So, what does this mean for the grid? And what is an electrical spine?

A significant increase in offshore wind capacity helps to address the question of how we’ll generate energy in a net zero Britain, but it doesn’t answer the question of what upgrades the grid needs to deliver this massive increase in volatile wind energy to households across the UK.

These required infrastructural changes are detailed in the National Grid’s Electricity System Operator (ESO) Beyond 2030 report, and they’ll require significant investment. The grid-scale solution, proposed by the ESO, is a transmission network called ‘The Electrical Spine.’

The electrical spine is basically offshore and onshore cables, which will either be new cables or upgrades to existing transmission lines.  

The ‘spine’ specifically includes a vast increase in onshore cables that will move a huge volume of power between Peterhead in Aberdeenshire (the east coast of Scotland), where the offshore wind generation sits, and Merseyside (an English county, home to the city of Liverpool).  The current proposals for the spine include two contentious new routes near the Anglo-Scottish border forming the lower half of the ‘spine’, the longest of which will be a new onshore circuit from Cumbria to Lancashire and beyond.

Why is this upgrade needed, and why now?

The grid is simply not fit for purpose. It is unprepared for the seismic transition that is coming if we are to deliver against net zero.  

Over the last decade, there has been a greater influx of investment in renewable generation than there has been in transmission capacity. This has led to congestion in the electricity network, where energy is unable to be transported to where it's needed. As a result, there are often instances where wind farms are asked to cease operations to prevent grid overload, leading to the waste of affordable, eco-friendly, domestically-produced wind energy.

We want to prevent wasted renewable energy, so the grid needs to be able to handle this gigantic increase in capacity with better connections across the UK.

The ESO has said plainly that any solution requires significant investment in the grid.  

The electrical spine is the ESOs most comprehensive grid upgrade to date, enabling a powerful amount of extra transmission capability to distribute all that new (86 GW worth) of renewable energy across the UK.

How much will it cost and who is going to pay for this?

As part of the Beyond 2030 Report, the ESO is asking for £58 billion of direct investment to build this new ‘electrical spine’ and finally upgrade the grid. This £58 billion is claimed to be a ‘once in a generation’ infrastructure investment.

And where will that investment come from? The new transmission lines, those connecting Aberdeen to Merseyside, are expected to be funded through a levy on energy bills. This will most likely mean an increase in the transmission charges that the National Grid already places on domestic and business energy bills.

Consultation of plans presented in the ESO's Beyond 2030 report are still underway.

Image source: National Grid ESO's Beyond 2030 Report