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Scott Cunningham

24 June 2022, 2:06 UTC Share

Planning for the Electricity Transmission

This blog post describes the upcoming electricity transition, and the necessity for better planning for our future energy requirements.

I recently worked with ClimateXChange, a policy transfer group in Edinburgh, this spring. During this consultation I had the opportunity to talk with multiple stakeholders about their concerns for the future of the electricity grid. Some of the stakeholders I consulted included property developers, local councils, private network operators, and energy grid managers. Across all these disparate stakeholders one message for the future was very clear.

Diverse stakeholders in the energy sector are seeking a whole-systems approach to our network, where public policy plays an essential role in coordination. Many stakeholders thought that the current processes of network planning and consultation, despite the best of intentions, tends to take a piece-meal approach.

An effective design for new grid capacity needs to consider all the new technological elements being introduced to the grid. These may include electrical vehicle charge points, but also new electrical heating units. These are all essential elements of new housing demand which significantly increase the efficiency of the system, but also increase the demand for electricity supply. As a result of this there are many reasons to transition towards greater electrification in the UK.

The UK generated more electricity from renewable than non-renewable sources throughout much of the past three years. The production of renewable energy is expected to far overtake non-renewable energy in the coming years. We need to transition to more electricity on our grid because it supports the production and transition to more renewable sources of energy.

We can create markets to reward electricity storage providers. This may incentivise new investments in storage technologies including flywheels, pumped hydroelectric power, and industrial scale electricity battery storage. This may also incentivise newer entrants into the electricity storage market, including consumers enabling their own solar power and battery storage units to sell excess capacity to the market.

We need to electrify our energy system because it is easier to transport energy to where it is most needed. Planning is needed because too often where energy is being produced is far from where it is being consumed. More remote locations are often where the cleaner and more sustainable sources of energy can be found, or can be productively sited. We need to electrify because renewable sources are more affordable than conventional energy sources.

Planning is needed in the electricity sector because our capacity to produce electricity varies across the year. Likewise the need for energy is highly variable, and largely outside the hands of most consumers. Fuel demand is much higher whenever the weather is colder. With a mix of planning and the market, we can install natural gas storage facilities to help even out irregularities in supply. We can also increase our capacity for electricity transmission lines, enabling more trade in electricity over national borders.

Renewable energy sources are more variable than fossil fuels. Wind power, our leading source of renewable energy, can only be generated when the wind is blowing. In contrast fossil fuels can be stored and burned at need. This variability associated with renewable energy comes with a hidden cost. Having a stable grid is an asset that markets and consumers are willing to pay for.

Fortunately a well-connected transmission system enables disparate sources of energy to be combined. This evens out any interruptions or irregularities which may occur. This in turn increases the market for renewable energy sources since consumers can thereby be assured of a continuous source of supply. Other means of electricity storage, including pumped hydro and flywheels are increasingly coming online as well.

Without planning we won’t have the network capacity we need to meet the new demands for household electricity. We need to plan our electricity grid in advance of need. Without understanding how the market is governed we cannot plan for a future, more sustainable energy system. For all these reasons as well as others, a more fully integrated perspective on planning in advance of the up-and-coming electricity transition is seriously needed.

Scott Cunningham is a Professor of Policy at the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde. He researches and teaches topics related to the energy transition.

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