From next year, engineers will need to roll out more than 100km (62 miles) of electric cabling every day until 2040 if the government hopes to power the UK towards its climate goals, according to new data.
Analysis of Britain’s existing power grids and the country’s predicted electricity demand reveals that within the next 17 years, more than 600,000km of electric lines will need to be either added or upgraded across the UK.
The research, carried out by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and shared with the Observer, lays bare the scale of Britain’s infrastructure challenge, even as energy companies prepare to speed up the building of pylons, power lines and undersea cables.
This surge in electrical infrastructure will be a critical step in the government’s plan to wean the economy off fossil fuels and create a net zero nation by 2050. Challenges will include overhauling government policy and securing supplies of the high-voltage cables needed.
Fatih Birol, head of the IEA, has urged governments worldwide to “open their eyes” to the scale of the task facing them.
Advanced economies will need to lay at least 23 million kilometres of power lines by 2040 to meet their renewable energy goals, according to a recent report, and on a global level, 80m km of cable will be needed.
“If we want clean electricity, we need not only clean methods of generation, but we need to build grids. It has been a blind spot of governments’ clean energy transition programmes of,” said Birol.
Global demand for components such as high-voltage cables, pylons and converter station equipment threatens to outstrip manufacturing capacity, pushing British energy companies into an international race to secure supplies.
The owners of Britain’s high-voltage transmission lines – National Grid, SSE and Scottish Power – have warned that this “blind spot” needs urgent action if the grid is to be rewired in time to meet green energy targets.
Keith Anderson, boss of Scottish Power, has warned that power companies and ministers will have their work cut out getting households to accept what will be a “colossal” increase in visible electricity infrastructure.
“This is a massive infrastructure roll-out,” he told the Observer. “We need to be open about what we’re planning, and why we need to do it, so that as a country we can face up to the reality of this challenge.”
Electricity demand in the UK is forecast to more than double by 2040 as fossil fuel heating systems and internal combustion engines are swapped for electric vehicles and heat pumps. Heavy industry must also switch away from fossil fuels in favour of clean power.
To meet the demands of an electrified economy, the government wants to quadruple the UK’s offshore wind power capacity to 50 gigawatts by 2030, and solar farms and battery facilities storing power generated by wind and solar are expected to mushroom across the country.
But for every pound spent on clean energy projects another pound must be spent on upgrading the power grids, according to Anderson. “There’s no point investing in renewables without investing in the grid. It’s like buying a new iPhone and not having a cable to go with it,” he said.
Britain’s energy planning policies also need rewiring. A string of power projects – from solar farms to batteries, with a combined capacity six times Britain’s current output – are waiting for approval by the Department for Energy and Net Zero. The waiting time for eventual connection to the grid is now up to 15 years. One major snag is that a large number of speculative projects have claimed a spot on the waiting list, despite being unlikely to go ahead.
There are delays too in building the high-voltage transmission “arteries” required to link offshore windfarms to the mainland grid, and areas of high power generation in the north of the country to areas of high demand in the south.
Britain’s first electricity networks commissioner, Nick Winser, warned in a landmark report earlier this year that the UK would need to connect about four times as much new transmission capacity to the network in the next seven years as has been built since 1990.
To meet this challenge, Britain will need to halve the time it takes to build and install pylons and cables for a new transmission project from 12-14 years to just seven.
He also said existing energy policies were “badly out of date”, and the UK needed a new strategy to shore up its manufacturing supply chain, which would involve training skilled workers.
High-voltage cables and equipment looked set to be in short supply for years or even decades, said Winser, because already producers were struggling to meet demand. As happened with vaccines during the pandemic, companies and even governments will find themselves competing to snap up available stocks.
And skills gaps threatened to “haunt” the UK’s green agenda, he added, unless there was heavy investment to create a new reservoir of trained staff.
Already energy companies have been “scrambling” to secure manufacturing slots, according to Alistair Phillips-Davies, chief executive of SSE. He told the Observer that his company, which has this year committed to investing more than £40bn in green energy and grid upgrades over the coming decade, had secured “around 80%” of the materials it would need for its grid upgrades.
British-owned cable manufacturer XLCC is planning to build the UK’s first factory making high-voltage undersea cables in Ayrshire to help meet demand. Production could begin as early as 2026.
Ian Douglas, XLCC’s chief executive, believes demand for high-voltage cables will increase sixfold over the next seven years, as global use of renewable energy expands. Its first order is from its parent XLinks, for four 3,800km cables to connect solar and windfarms in the Moroccan Sahara to the UK.
“The whole impetus and momentum of net zero risks being hamstrung by a lack of cable,” said Douglas. “The requirement to upgrade the grids is global, and it’s treble what we’re investing globally today.”
The government has accepted the recommendations of Winser’s report, and has already announced steps to cut grid access delays by giving priority to projects which are ready to start delivering.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt used last week’s autumn statement to offer a carrot to local residents: £10,000 off electricity bills over 10 years for households willing to accept new transmission infrastructure.
By dealing with the delays, the government believes it could accelerate about £90bn of additional private investment over the next 10 years.
The government has described its plans as the biggest update of the electricity grid since the 1950s, but to meet Britain’s green targets there is no time to waste.
‘We’re not luddites’: the battle for Walberswick
Loved by artists and writers, the Suffolk village of Walberswick has more than 1,000 acres of protected heath and marshland. But its idyllic shore may soon feature “motorway-size trenches” and a 25-metre-high converter station.
Walberswick is one of many places whose residents are fighting the steady march of the pylons considered essential if Britain is to meet its climate ambitions.
David Riches, a local artist, told the Observer: “We’re not in any way opposed to climate targets. We’re not luddites. We just want people to be sensible about it.”
Posters opposing plans to land a new undersea cable in the village are dotted around Walberswick’s pubs, tearooms and Georgian cottages. The LionLink project would connect windfarms in the North Sea and power the equivalent of 1.8m British homes. A ‘Walberswick against LionLink’ leaflet in the deli warns of a “threat hanging over coastal Suffolk” and it turning into “an industrial wasteland”.
The village has in recent years seen an influx of wealthy second-homers likely to be protective of their rural idyll. Better-known residents include film-maker Richard Curtis and his wife, Emma Freud; and Charlie Mackesy, creator of the 2019 book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.
Locals believe the high-voltage line should make landfall at Bradwell-on-Sea, down the coast in Essex, where there is a disused nuclear reactor.
“It’s difficult not to come across as a nimby,” said Riches. “But why ride roughshod over all the environmental protections in place for this area when there are alternative routes?”
Local opposition to visible energy infrastructure is a key barrier for the government. Deals such as the £1,000 discount for households who accept new pylons nearby is unlikely to sway residents in many upmarket enclaves.
“How much are our nature reserves worth? Our wildlife? Our footpaths? You can’t put a figure on that,” said Riches, adding that there was “a massive case” for compensating businesses that rely on tourism if the cable project goes ahead. Work on the converter station and cables could begin in 2027 and take around four years, but residents fear the impact on the area will last far longer.
National Grid said it was still consulting on a number of landfall sites, including Walberswick, and would “endeavour to reduce impacts as much as possible”. An assessment of “environmental, technical and cost factors” had found East Suffolk to be the best connection point
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