United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Opinion: UK can't afford to waste grid connections for viable wind development

It’s now a year since the UK government announced plans to deliver a 95% renewable electricity mix by 2035.

We must make the best use of grid connections or targets will not be met, argues Mike Kelly
We must make the best use of grid connections or targets will not be met, argues Mike Kelly

Such ambition is to be applauded but the question remains: is enough being done to ensure government targets can be met and do they go far enough?

First, it’s important to note the National Grid ESO’s strategy. This includes a recent announcement on the ESO’s offer of an amnesty to cleanse the grid capacity register, and the implementation of more effective management of the ‘queue’ for grid connections, is a long-awaited and welcome move.

National Grid ESO is also developing a holistic network design (HND), as part of the UK Department for Business and Energy’s offshore transmission network review, and based on the knowledge of where future offshore wind farms will be located, the grid network will be strengthened to allow for more connections to the grid.

If implemented effectively this would help to galvanise future connections and energy export from offshore wind farms.

Working in parallel with ESOs initiatives, the most obvious benefit of wind generation is the colossal potential scale of generation that will be brought forwards and facilitated through the effective implementation of the HND over the next 10 to 15 years in particular.

A technology that continues to make giant strides in both the scale of deployment and generation capacity of turbines, offshore wind will surely go on to become a dominant source of renewable energy generation in the UK.

Grid blocking for onshore

However, the story is somewhat different and far more challenging onshore where continued contribution to targets will be imperative over the coming decade and beyond.

Since 2017 when the deployment of onshore wind peaked at 1.7GW, the sector has seen a rapid decline down to 1,000MW in 2020.

This was arguably due to the removal of subsidies but was also exacerbated by the bringing into law of heavily restrictive planning controls in England. While the influence of the absence of financial incentivisation has diminished over that period, it is only more recently that the removal of the restrictive planning controls in England has been mooted by former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss, only for the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, to reverse that decision during his first session of 'Prime Minister’s Questions' yesterday.

Is co-location the answer?

However, looking at Scotland and Wales, where the heavily restrictive planning controls seen in England were not introduced, we have seen a resurgence in new onshore wind farm applications over the past four to five years.

Furthermore, recognising the constraints posed by the grid, we have seen the gradual emergence of renewable energy hybrid developments.

This is where wind generation is often proposed in conjunction with solar and battery storage. Such developments maximise the export of energy to the grid connections they secure.

While hybridisation of sites will not overcome the systemic issues facing the grid nationally, a future where this model could be adopted in England would facilitate the much-needed optimisation of existing and new grid connections for renewable energy generation and export.

Infrastructure bottleneck

Reinstating the removal of restrictive planning controls in England, and National Grid ESO’s proposed grid amnesty, would do much to promote further onshore wind development and energy generation.  

However, in the absence of deployment of initiatives onshore akin to the proposed (offshore) HND, where the grid operator acts in a collaborative and prospective manner rather than reactive, the grid infrastructure in the UK will remain one the greatest challenges we face in taking advantage of our plentiful wind resource, and ultimately meeting our 2035 target.

Thumbnail credit: Haymarket

Mike Kelly is renewable energy development director at RSK Group

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