It is rather ironic that one of the biggest blockers to the UK reaching net zero is the much-loved British institution: the queue.
In order for electricity generators to connect to the national grid and distribute their power through the UK’s transmission network, they require a grid connection from their regional (and monopolised) distribution operator. The high number of (mainly renewable) generators being built outpaces the capacity to build connections, resulting in a queue.
Currently, projects join the back of the queue based on the date that they accept their offer of connection from the national grid. However, just like in a queue at a supermarket checkout, if you get stuck behind a slow moving or abandoned customer, you’ve got to wait until they reach the front (or leave) the queue before it’s your turn to check out - even if you’ve got your card out ready to pay. Projects can enter the queue before they’ve got full funding or planning permission and waiting for projects to get these can slow progress.
At the moment, some renewable projects are waiting 10 to 15 years for a connection to the national grid as the queue grows by around 50 projects per month. Over 200GW of solar and wind alone is currently in the queue, awaiting a connection. This compares to a peak winter demand, when demand is highest, of 48.6GW in 2022. The way projects connect to the grid requires change. National Grid recently committed to moving stalled projects backwards in the queue, or removing them from the queue altogether to ensure projects that are progressing are not unnecessarily held up.
The recent announcement of Ofgem being granted a net zero remit is a welcome step towards connecting projects to the grid more quickly. This change will unlock anticipatory investment in the grid, meaning upgrades can take place ahead of demand.
To ensure we support decarbonisation of our power though, the Electricity System Operator (ESO) - responsible for transporting electricity across the UK and connecting projects to the grid - could go further and actively prioritise critical low-carbon or renewable projects, placing them ahead of carbon-intensive generators in the queue.
As well as consideration of low-carbon credentials, projects that have planning permission and funding in place could also be dealt with more favourably. For example, projects over 50MW, which are critical to our energy supply, that are ‘oven-ready’ with permission and funding in place should be prioritised for connections in the queue.
Alternatively, a more market-based approach could be explored to speed up grid connections and allocate this scarce resource on a more economically efficient basis. Spain for example, instead of operating a queue, has utilised an auction, with projects bidding for grid access. Projects which have greater socio-economic and environmental benefits, such as job creation, community benefit and lower environmental impact are scored more highly. A similar process in the UK could see funds raised for government, and preference given to projects which have greater wider benefits.
If the UK is to reach its ambitious net zero target, we need the infrastructure to get there. Instead of delaying new renewable projects in an outdated queue system, we should be encouraging them to develop as quickly as practical. In order to realise our renewable generation potential, perhaps we need to let projects jump the queue.
If you are a CEN supporter, councillor, or parliamentarian and would like to write for the CEN blog, please email your idea to email@example.com.