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Can the grid support the UK’s transition to a net zero future?

31 October 2021

By James Owen, Managing Director of Exagen Development

Until July 2009 and the DECC consultation on Feed in Tariffs (FITs) I hadn’t carried out a single G59 DNO grid connection. However, by the end of 2010 I’d carried out many, at a time when industry colleagues were predicting that the UK grid couldn’t cope with the proposed amount of embedded generation.

Roll forward to 2012 and Cornwall and the South West were struggling. The 33kV network was under insurmountable pressure, and by 2015 most of my grid offers came with major re-enforcement elements and long timescales. The industry was rapidly changing. We were morphing from sub 5MW to 10MW (remember double FIT community projects?) into Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs), 10MW, 20MW, 30MW, 40MW and then 50MW projects. And with it came the leap from the 11kV and 33kV networks to 66kV and the heady heights of 132kV. All the while, the tidal wave of pressure was spreading north and east across the UK.

Two factors were in play at this time. One was the conversation around the grid not being able to cope. The other was the fact that developers were still making grid connections work. So it wasn’t until 2016 when subsidies ended, that the majority of UK solar activity dwindled. However, since 2018 on the back of technology advances and cost reductions, development activity has grown considerably. And today we’re seeing unprecedented pre-consented activity levels in both solar and battery development.

That’s not to say ‘the grid can’t cope’ conversation isn’t still happening. It is. However, over the past three years, I’ve managed over 3GW of ‘acceptable’ grid offers and recently reviewed a 500MW offer, which, on initial screening, looks equally viable.

People are often surprised by this reported lack of grid availability, but when we look at how the distribution network operators (DNOs) and National Grid respond to connection offers, it isn’t that surprising. With increasingly high numbers of formal offers and initial acceptances, network operators are constantly having to redesign their network in a piecemeal way. They have to consider offers as if they are connected – which many never will be. Also they must consider multiple connections from one developer to one Point of Connection at the same time, which often go as quickly as they come.

There’s a large amount of risk, time and frustration for everyone involved. But the challenges don’t end there. Distribution network operators are just starting their transition to distribution system operators (DSO), as we move to smarter energy systems.

I was encouraged when the UK Government recently confirmed their policy to end fossil-fuelled electricity generation by 2035 – although there certainly needs to be more detail on how this will be achieved. As the Government continues to refine the UK’s roadmap to net zero by 2050, the pressure is on DNOs to ensure grid capacity for new connections. With ever-increasing demand for network capacity from solar, storage and wind developers on one side, and energy demand from electrified heat, industry and transport on the other, it seems inevitable that grid infrastructure owners must play ball.

So, what does this all mean for grid availability?

As we look towards 2050 we see a raft of possibilities, all of which raises several questions. Will green hydrogen appear at scale? How will grid ‘Use of System’ charges develop? What new services will be needed to manage a system with less thermal generation? Ultimately, what will an evolving grid look like in the near to medium future? However, what we can all agree on is that the energy landscape is changing, with renewables and flexibility playing an ever-increasing role on generation and the balancing of the grid.

In our opinion, despite the concerns, there will almost always be available grid. Individual developers must decide for themselves what is acceptable. However, being able to find viable connections will depend on many factors. These include attitude to risk, the business model, expected return on investment, a solid technical strategy that combines generation assets with storage assets, and rolling out private networks alongside robust electricity trading or a PPA strategy. Moreover, as system operators move to ‘smarter networks’ we’re seeing increasing capacity through active network management and demand side response, as well as well as a general openness to innovation to deliver our shared goals.

As we progress towards net zero by 2050, we believe that our development community has the tools and overarching ambition with our system operator partners to achieve this. With an excellent strategy and investor confidence, we aim to deliver a resilient system, while also addressing the real and growing issue of fuel poverty and bill payer protection.

So although connecting assets to the grid is still complicated, as DNOs transition to DSOs and partner with renewable asset developers, there now seems a brighter future for delivering a network powered by renewable sources.

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