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Electricity Network Connection Action Plan

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they intend to publish the electricity network connection action plan promised for the summer in Powering Up Britain: Energy Security Plan.

My Lords, the Connections Action Plan is published today. The plan will significantly reduce connection delays from the current average of five years to no more than six months beyond the date requested by the customer. It will release 100 gigawatts of spare capacity, equivalent to around a quarter of electricity needs in 2050. The plan also establishes an Ofgem-chaired monthly connections delivery board to ensure timely and effective implementation; that board will first meet on 6 December.

My Lords, in declaring that I am in receipt of an IPT fellowship in wave energy, I thank the Minister very much for that reassuring news, but one consequence of the essential greater grid capacity could be many more unpopular and unsightly pylons. What thought have the Government given to supporting burying them, or to Andrea Leadsom MP’s proposed amendment to the then Energy Bill in the other place? The amendment said:

“Within six months of the passage of this Act, the Secretary of State must by regulations provide for a fast-track planning process for electricity pylons along motorways and rail lines”,

which would considerably lessen the visual impact.

I congratulate the noble Baroness on tabling her Question for today, which is a fantastic coincidence and shows her great foresight on this. She is right that the construction of new electricity infra- structure, particularly pylons, is a controversial matter, particularly in the communities that are affected. She will know that the Winser review made a number of recommendations as to how we can involve communities further and take them with us on these plans. We are taking forward all those recommendations.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is precisely right in her Question. While I welcome the new generation of T-pylons, of which we are less visually aware, the visual impact provision scheme has £465 million from Ofgem to bury power lines. The truth of the matter is that National Grid is very against the burial of power lines. It is possible; if it was not, we would not bury them in areas of outstanding beauty and national parks. When will the Government recognise the fact that this huge explosion of interconnectors and power lines that we are about to witness needs to be taken seriously when it comes to destroying our beautiful, unrivalled landscapes?

I have a certain amount of sympathy with what my noble friend says, but the reality is that we need this new infrastructure and, unfortunately, it is not possible to say that no community will be affected. It is possible to bury power lines, of course, but it is up to 10 times more expensive and that cost will fall on the bill payer. As in many things, it is about getting the balance right.

My Lords, I declare my interests in the register. The future systems operator will be key to planning and rolling out network infra- structure. Now that we have the enabling legislation in place, can the Minister please update the House on the timescales and process for set-up of the future systems operator in the coming months, and the associated consultations?

The noble Lord is absolutely right: the FSO role is absolutely key, and we are progressing work on that as quickly as possible. It is really important to get it up and running, and relieve the responsibility from the national grid, which I think has had a number of conflicts of interest in this space.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is a pressing need for new interconnector links down the west coast of Wales to facilitate potential hydroelectric schemes? Is he aware of the uncertainty concerning the help to minimise the physical impact on houses nearby and on substations? Who will fund these payments, and who will determine the planning issues? Are the Government working in close co-operation with the Welsh Government to make sure that there is clarity on this issue and that they can move forward quickly?

Indeed, we are working with both the Scottish and Welsh Governments. There is tremendous public support for offshore wind; it has been our biggest expansion mechanism. But of course it requires a lot of onshore infrastructure as well, which is unpopular in the communities affected. There is a well-established planning process, looking at all these impacts, and we will continue to work with the devolved Administrations.

My Lords, since the Government have just dabbled with changing the planning conditions for onshore wind in England, there has been no action whatever from the industry, in that it still sees the planning restrictions as a major barrier. When does the Minister expect the next connection into the grid by onshore wind in England so that households can benefit from the cheapest form of energy we can produce in this country?

Of course, there are still some onshore wind connections being built in both Scotland and Wales, and a few in England as well. We are committed to looking at the barriers that exist and overcoming them.

Ofgem’s new mandate to prioritise the UK’s net-zero target comes into force on Boxing Day—welcome progress secured by an amendment to the recent Energy Bill. Given that the review on reform of the electricity connections system began before this change, what discussion have the Government already had with Ofgem to make sure that decisions are made in line with the new mandate, thereby ensuring that every opportunity it presents is taken to ensure progress?

I think the noble Baroness will find that Ofgem’s view is that it was already fulfilling that mandate—and, of course, the vast majority of the new connections are because of new renewable electricity, which is to fulfil our net-zero obligations. Ofgem is fully in line with that.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that it would make more sense to keep locally the electricity that is generated in the North Sea and coming onshore in Scotland, the north of England and Humberside, which have some of the coldest and poorest-insulated households in the UK?

I am not sure I understand the point my noble friend is making. The reason we have a national grid is to distribute electricity around the country so that all communities get the chance to benefit. If you had a much more localised system of grids, it would be much more inefficient. The whole idea or principle of the national grid is that the whole country can benefit from all our renewables infrastructure.

My Lords, I declare my interests in this area and very much welcome the Minister’s original reply. Does he agree with me that, as well as the expansion of the grid and connections, we need to look at the demand side and at reducing demand and increasing energy efficiency? The Government promised several consultations on this issue in different sectors and on building standards. Is the Minister confident that the timescales promised for those consultations will be kept?

I agree with the noble Baroness that energy efficiency is really important. It is much cheaper than building new energy infrastructure. She will be aware that we are spending £6.5 billion on energy efficiency and clean power over this Parliament, and we have already managed to secure £6 billion from the Treasury for 2025-28. We need to take forward all these measures. There are a number of key consultations coming up that will make a big difference, not least that on the future homes standard.

My Lords, today’s announcement is very welcome, but does the Minister agree with me —I am sure he does—that we are in a farcical situation where a charging point off the M1 in West Yorkshire has to rely on diesel-driven generators to supply the electricity to electric vehicles?

My Lords, the excellent document Powering Up Britain talks about a 100% increase in national grid capacity to deliver an all-electric economy by 2050. National Grid itself talks about a much larger figure: a 200% or 300% addition in the national grid. Can the Minister guide us on which he thinks is the most reliable of those estimates? Can he also tell us how it is all to be financed and, indeed, how the planning system will be sped up so that we can achieve anywhere near that by 2050?

My noble friend asks good questions. The figures are that peak demand for electricity is expected to increase from 47 gigawatts in 2022 to between 90 and 120 gigawatts in 2035, as transport, heating and industry electrify. We think that this will require between 260 and 310 gigawatts of generation capacity connected to the network by 2035. To do all these things, we of course need to reform the planning system, which we are doing through national policy statements and through the action plan announced today.

My Lords, there are considerable problems with capacity issues within local circuits in the distribution network from the transmission lines, especially in rural areas. There are reported delays even to the 132-kilovolt networks, as renewable schemes are being held in the queue to be connected until 2037. How can that help to decarbonise the power sector by 2035? I declare an interest as being involved in such a scheme. Will the plan published today help to resolve this queue and reappraise the first-come-first-served basis for supply connections?

The noble Lord points to the main problem that we have, which is that there is a large queue of projects running into many hundreds of gigawatts. The whole purpose of the action plan is to look at which of those projects are likely to go ahead and to prioritise those that are likely to proceed—a lot are in the queue and probably not likely to proceed—and have the investment and backing, and will decarbonise and deliver the upgrades as quickly as possible. I am not familiar with the particular project that the noble Lord referred to, but if he wants to send me the details, I will certainly look at it for him.