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Net zero energy for the UK: the scale of the challenge

23 November 2023

The Energy Networks Association joined the ICE and MPs to discuss the steps necessary to decarbonise the UK’s power grid.

Net zero energy for the UK: the scale of the challenge
We can use our existing capacity better. Image credit: Shutterstock

The prime minister’s announcement in September on the UK’s path to net zero focused in on energy networks’ role as a critical enabler and committed partner in the energy transition.

Our energy system is at the heart of our efforts to reach net zero carbon emissions.

Collectively, networks are investing £43 billion in energy infrastructure over the coming years and are responsible for delivering several government targets by 2035.

At this critical time, it’s on all of us – industry and policymakers alike – to be open and honest about the scale of the challenges in delivering this new, net zero-enabling, smart grid.

Two challenges in particular stand out.

Challenge one: connecting clean energy

The UK’s electricity networks have a world-leading track record of successfully connecting renewable energy.

But as our decarbonisation efforts speed up, it’s clear that the processes behind delivering grid connections need to change.

This requires close working between industry, the regulator, and the government.

The UK’s first commercial wind farm began exporting renewable power to the grid in 1992.

Since then, the networks have connected nearly 83GW of low-carbon generation at the transmission level and 25GW of decentralised generation to the distribution networks.

We need to make better use of existing capacity

We can use our existing capacity better. Our Open Networks programme has been driving this progress since 2017.

Through the programme, the UK has built the largest market for local flexibility services in the world, delivering additional capacity through shifting patterns of demand.

Our work saw over 4GW of flexibility made available this year – enough to power 4 million homes. Of that capacity, 2.4GW was contracted, 70% from low-carbon sources.

However, between 2022 and 2023, 418GW of new transmission connection requests were received.

That’s two and a half times the entire grid’s capacity and far more than what even the most ambitious scenarios believe is needed.

This surge in projects and connections requests has created a significant pipeline of projects looking to connect.

Three steps to grid reform

Earlier this year, working with our members, Ofgem, and the government, we set out our plan for reforming grid connections.

We worked on short, medium, and long-term initiatives that will make a difference for customers.

First, we need to fix the connections pipeline using new innovative technologies and implementing measures to remove ‘zombie’ projects from the queue.

We need to move from ‘first come, first served’ to ‘first ready, first connected’.

Second, we need to use current network capacity better and increase the use of flexibility services, including through ENA’s Open Networks project.

Third, we need to build more network capacity in the right places at the right times.

Reform to the planning regime is crucial if we’re to deliver a net zero energy grid.

There are nationally critical transmission projects that have taken 10-12 years to get through the consents process alone.

We strongly support the recommendations in the Winser Review to speed up this process for transmission operators.

Challenge two: delivering hydrogen projects

The second challenge is rolling out hydrogen at the necessary pace to meet the UK’s targets.

Clear policy and direction from the government and Ofgem on issues including the strategic role of hydrogen in our future energy system are essential to plan investment, secure supply chains, and consider appropriate timelines.

ENA’s gas members recently released their Hydrogen Vision report, setting out how they believe the government should:

  • show the same commitment to hydrogen network infrastructure development as it has to hydrogen production;
  • speed up the development of critical business models for transport and storage;
  • make key policy decisions around blending; and
  • ensure the planned Future System Operator has the right tools and mandate to deliver its part in the hydrogen vision.

The energy sector recognises collaboration with the government and Ofgem is essential to securing a long-term policy and regulatory landscape that attracts much-needed investment into our industry and networks.

We look forward to productive collaboration across government and industry over the years ahead.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure

The APPGI highlights the importance of economic infrastructure in the UK, convening parliamentarians, government, and industry to discuss how best to ensure society gets the infrastructure it needs.

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  • Lawrence Slade, chief executive at Energy Networks Association