Keeping an open mind crucial to energy transition delivery

In June 2022, an Electricity Networks Commissioner (ENC) was appointed in Great Britain and tasked with providing advice to the UK Government on how to reduce the time it takes to deliver the crucial electricity grid upgrades needed to meet its renewable energy targets.

Like here in Northern Ireland, the grid and how it is operated needs to be fundamentally reimagined and upgraded to facilitate a different and more varied type of electricity generation which is weather dependent.

Earlier in summer 2023, Great Britain’s Electricity Networks Commissioner, Nick Winser, published the comprehensive report with a wide-ranging series of recommendations covering areas such as planning and regulation to community benefit and land access, all with the purpose of accelerating electricity transmission development.

Among the recommendations is the idea of a Strategic Spatial Energy Plan to better align government policy and network development plans. There are recommendations to allow national planning policy to be regularly updated to support the need for new electricity transmission infrastructure.

In the area of public acceptance, the report acknowledges the need to ensure rural communities are treated fairly and therefore recommends that compensation for accessing land should be set at a national level.
It notes the large difference in cost to consumers between overhead lines, underground cables, and offshore cables with underground options costing between five and 10 times more than the overhead alternatives. It concludes, therefore, that providing a community benefit for overhead lines is less costly than using an underground cable and will have a lower environmental impact.

“With less than 80 months until 2030, now is the time for a purposeful increase in the intensity of that collaboration and a refocusing of minds on the delivery the Energy Strategy.”

A government-led national campaign is recommended to communicate the need for electricity infrastructure and how this can lead to positive social, environmental, and economic outcomes for people and the communities in which they live and work.

In the critical area of skills shortages, there is a recommendation to establish a working group which includes all the key players in the energy system, including supply chains, to create an action plan.

Here in Northern Ireland, our plan, in the form of the Northern Ireland Energy Strategy – Path to Net Zero Energy, is already delivering on many of the recommendations and looking at solutions specific to our part of the world.

We also have the benefit of a unique energy sector operating in a relatively small, self-contained island-based energy system. This has enabled the close collaboration which has led to the genuinely world-leading progress we have made so far in the onboarding of renewable energy into our power system – Northern Ireland being the first part of the world to have 75 per cent of its electricity on the grid coming from renewable sources at any moment in time.

But with less than 80 months until 2030, now is the time for a purposeful increase in the intensity of that collaboration and a refocusing of minds on the delivery the Energy Strategy. This injection of purposeful intensity needs to reflect the urgency of the existential challenge that climate change poses to our everyday lives.

There is no question that the 80 per cent target is a huge challenge, effectively doubling the progress of the last two decades in less than one.

For SONI’s part, we understand the unprecedented scale of transformation required on the grid to make these targets a reality. We also recognise the urgency of the task at hand, and what it will take to make it happen.

In 2021, we published a roadmap Shaping Our Electricity Future, which sets out our plan to ready the power system and the electricity markets for a 70 per cent target. Earlier in summer 2023, we published a revised roadmap to account for the more challenging 80 per cent target set by the Climate Change Act 2022. We are also progressing a new Transmission Development Plan which sets out an unprecedented power system infrastructure investment programme.

At SONI, we are embarking on a new and exciting phase of our journey as an organisation.

We will soon be appointing new non-executive members to our board who will work closely with our partners across the energy sector, business, government and local communities to reaffirm our central mission to ready the power system to deliver a cleaner energy future. In doing so, we will further build the capacity and capability of our organisation and our people to meet the challenges and avail of the opportunities that lie ahead.

But we cannot do this alone and nor can any of our partners across the energy sector. Only a further and deeper intensification of the collaboration that has enabled our progress to date, coupled with a supportive, innovative, and agile policy environment, can realise this collective ambition.

As we move forward, we should continue to be open-minded and agile about new ways of doing things and take inspiration from what is working elsewhere.

This means working together to overcome the challenges in areas such as planning with agility, using our small region credentials to be innovative in areas such as future investment and being responsive to the needs of businesses and investors.

We know from recent research published by the Consumer Council that we need to redouble our efforts with local communities and landowners to ensure they feel part of the energy transition. This means having the confidence to make the case for how this transition will tangibly benefit their lives, but also actively listening and being open to change.

We know what we need to do and now is the time to push on.

Alan Campbell is Managing Director at SONI, the Transmission System Operator for Northern Ireland

T: +44 028 9079 4336

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