Our National Grid network is undergoing the biggest and most rapid overhaul in generations. In the next seven years, Carl Trowell, President of UK Strategic Infrastructure for National Grid, says they need to build five times more transmission infrastructure than in the last three decades.

Five times more build-out than we have seen since the turn of the century in just seven years is quite something. Nothing short of an immense level of investment to provide more pylons, cables and substations to transport electricity around the country.

It’s easy to understand why this might sound alarming, especially if you are a politician representing constituents where this build-out will happen. The most high-profile case being the campaign by UK Environment Secretary, Therese Coffey, against new pylons running through her constituency.

Yet at the same time we are increasingly confronted with the undeniable effects of global warming as extreme flooding, record-breaking temperatures and frequent heatwaves become a part of our new reality. Climate change consistently presents us with the same contradiction. Awareness of urgency does not necessarily translate to a proportionate understanding or willingness to act.

Energy is no different to food, transport, building or any of the other major carbon emitters in this respect. We know we need to change, but change is hard, and do we really have to change that much?

The National Grid’s ‘Great Grid Upgrade’ campaign is a fantastic example of what is at stake, and without a concerted effort across government, industry and society to successfully communicate the urgent need for this change, we risk losing public support for the transition to renewables.

In a sense, renewable energy is a victim of its own success. Renewable energy sources already make up a significant proportion of the electricity mix that powers our homes and businesses. According to the National Grid, 2020 marked the first year in UK history where electricity came predominantly from renewable energy (43% generated by a wind, solar, biomass, hydro mix). It is tempting to assume this trend will continue. The problem is that, without urgent action, it can’t. Each new renewable energy project requires a new grid connection point, and the UK currently has the longest waiting list in Europe to connect to the electricity grid, with more than 300GW of energy projects waiting for a connection. In May 1GW of new capacity was applying to the queue every day, with new transmission lines taking 8-12 years to come on-line. We are already at the point of gridlock, and the way the current system is set up is optimised for fossil fuels, not renewables.

There is a big difference.

At a very simple level it is a classic plumbing problem. Fossil fuels generate steady volumes of electricity on demand. Our existing grid network is geared towards handling fixed power loads from centralised power plants close to consumers, where transmission distances are as short as possible. However, smaller-scale wind, solar and tidal power generators are distributed more widely across the country, and large offshore wind farms miles off the coast are particularly far from demand.

The result is we waste vast amounts of clean energy through bottlenecks in capacity and transmission. To function properly, the variable nature of renewable energy sources requires an entirely different approach. To accommodate sudden changes in power, balance the issue of surplus and deficits and move electricity to wherever it is needed in the country, we need a smarter, more flexible grid system.

This will require more widespread transmission networks to be built over longer distances, but if we prioritise flexibility intelligently, we could significantly reduce the scale of what needs to be built. This is what we mean by a new, smart system. No one would advocate building a motorway wide enough to harbour all possible traffic! The payback is clean, secure energy for every home and business across the UK, and net zero is the compelling reason.

We have the dual problem of a system not fit for purpose facing a huge ramping up in demand as we move to electrify our heating and transport systems. The way we built the grid was for a fossil fuel past, not a low carbon future. It is a fundamental mismatch in design which we can no longer accommodate if we want to tackle the myriad runaway consequences of climate change.

In a survey of RenewableUK Cymru members, building and upgrading the grid came up as the number one priority critical to their success. National Grid Electricity System Operator is moving towards a more system-level of planning based around long range national targets, while the energy regulator, Ofgem, will soon be given a statutory net zero mandate, thanks to an amendment to the new Energy Bill in parliament. A strategy for grid development in Wales is becoming increasingly urgent given the constraints faced by onshore wind developers in Mid-Wales and uncertainty in design for offshore wind developers in the Celtic Sea. Regional energy system planning will help us deliver the anticipatory investment needed to reach the Welsh Government’s 2035 zero carbon electricity target.

The good news is, there is strong public support for renewable energy in the areas where we need to build it. Polling commissioned by RenewableUK found overwhelming levels of support for building new wind and solar farms to tackle the cost of energy crisis. 85% of people in Brecon & Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire supported onshore wind as energy generation. Whether they feel the same about pylons, cables and substations remains to be seen. But they might, if they understood why. Nick Winser, the UK’s first Electricity Networks Commissioner, is due to publish a report shortly outlining new measures to increase the pace of grid infrastructure development and enhance community benefit and public engagement.  This may be the catalyst we need to change the narrative around grid.

Building strong relationships with local communities as early as possible is the best way to establish successful partnerships lasting decades. RenewableUK is working hard to ensure governments develop a strong community benefit protocol. Working closely with communities is the only way to balance the needs of those hosting the infrastructure with the need to deliver lower bills, more secure energy and more clean energy for everyone.

Renewable energy creates local jobs as well as offering a wide range of community benefits. This could include providing charging points for electric vehicles or upgrading rural broadband services, offering local electricity discounts or shared ownership of projects. It’s up to local people to decide what form these benefits should take.

We are on the cusp of something truly phenomenal. Let us find the courage to carry through our ambitions.

By Abi Beck, RUK Cymru Communications Manager