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Grid connection delays risk net zero goal

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The UK could fail to meet some of its net zero goals unless it can speed up grid connections for renewable energy sources and grid-scale battery storage. 

That’s what the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee of MPs was told on January 24, with industry experts warning that some renewable energy projects likely won’t receive grid connections until late 2030. That would be long past National Grid ESO’s own goal of operating a zero-carbon electricity system by 2025.

With the UK currently facing an energy crisis, connecting more clean and cheap energy generation to the grid is vital. However, despite an appetite for installing more wind and solar farms, many projects are on hold due to long delays with receiving a grid connection. 

During the committee session Will Mezzullo, Head of Hydrogen at Centrica, noted, “We have been made aware of a solar farm with a 14 megawatt grid connection. It has been told of a grid connection date of 2033.

“It is not a lack of investment. The investment is there. It is not a lack of skills. We have the skills in the UK and the technology is there. It is physically the grid constraints.”

It’s well known that National Grid has a huge backlog when it comes to making grid connections, which is why the ESO is currently exploring ways of reforming the system. Merlin Hyman, Chief Executive of Regen, is chairing the challenge group looking into those reforms, and even he admits change is needed sooner rather than later. 

Hyman, who is also Chief Executive of Regen, commented, “The solar farm is quite lucky with 2033, because for most people it is 2036 or 2037 now. If you apply with a new solar farm, battery, hydrogen electrolyser, large-scale EV charger in most parts of the country, you will get a connection date in 15 years’ plus time. Given our targets are rather earlier than that, that is clearly a huge problem now for the whole net zero transition.

“Broadly, it is two parts. There is longer-term asset investment, with more wires. The core infrastructure will still be critical to this transition. Then there is a short-term queue management system, where there are a lot of projects that are not proceeding that have the capacity. There are those that can proceed but are stuck in a queue. There are much better ways of managing that queue.

“The ESO asked me to chair the challenge group for its GB connections reforms process, which it is starting at the moment. There is recognition of this issue but I do not think it is yet nearly a high enough priority. I am not sure that policymakers and politicians are very aware of this critical issue, the fact that it is blocking billions of pounds in investment and our progress towards net zero.”

It’s not just new generation that is being blocked either, with energy storage projects also stuck in the pipeline. That’s causing a huge headache at a time when the UK is reliant on greater flexibility within the energy system, with consumers now taking an active role in reducing energy use as part of the National Grid’s new Demand Flexibility Service. 

Mezzullo warns that consumers cannot be completely relied upon, “We have to be careful of pushing everything on to the consumer. That demand-side response, that short-duration balancing, is where grid-scale batteries are really effective. We heard that the UK so far has been rolling out successfully. At the moment, the grid is absolutely constrained. They physically can put hardly any more grid-scale batteries or renewables on the network.”

Hyman agrees, “Specifically on storage, there are potentially quick wins here. Storage should be helping the system. At the moment, it is largely modelled as at maximum generation it will also be exporting, so it is an added problem, or at maximum demand it will also be importing. If it was modelled as zero or even positive, the network operators could allow it to connect and they clearly need some control process there.”

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