Interconnectors: vital for a smart energy future

Interconnectors are more than just a short-term fix, they will enable a faster transition to the smarter energy system of the future, says Jon Butterworth, global transmission director of National Grid Ventures.

The British people have relied on and benefited from international trade for centuries. As an island nation, we have defined ourselves by our maritime prowess and our ability to trade goods and services with all corners of the globe. In many respects interconnectors - subsea cables that enable the import and export of large volumes of electricity - continue Britain’s proud trading tradition. More importantly, interconnectors are instrumental in delivering secure and affordable electricity to consumers, while facilitating the development of a cleaner and more flexible energy system for future generations.

The UK government recently reiterated its support for more power links to mainland Europe as part of its Clean Growth Strategy, calling for 9.5 gigawatts of additional interconnector capacity. This is on top of the 3.4 gigawatts of capacity National Grid and its partners are currently building to Belgium, France and Norway.  There are many more projects planned by other developers, including two more links to France. In October, the Danish government also approved a proposed 1.4 gigawatt cable between Denmark and Britain that National Grid is planning to build together with Danish transmission system operator Energinet. So why are the UK and other European governments so supportive of interconnection? I believe when we put consumers and the environment first, the benefits of interconnectors are obvious.

Interconnectors give consumers access to cheaper, low carbon electricity from neighbouring markets. They also give them access to a larger and more diverse mix of generation, which strengthens security of supply. In the UK, this is further strengthened through interconnector participation in the Capacity Market.

By linking national energy systems, interconnectors help to smooth hourly variations in production from wind and solar farms.  For example, Norwegian hydro or Danish wind power can fill the gap when the sun isn’t shining and there is little or no wind in the UK. While on very sunny and windy days in Britain, excess power production can be stored in Norwegian lakes using hydro storage. In years with little rainfall, Norway can top up with power from the UK. Time and cultural differences between countries, where for example the average dinner time is later than in Britain, also ensures that peak times do not completely overlap. 

Some critics have suggested that interconnectors are a short-term fix. However, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), which was established “to provide the UK government with impartial, expert advice on major long-term infrastructure challenges”, disagrees. Last year, the NIC recommended an increase in interconnection to manage the more frequent fluctuations inherent to tomorrow’s greener energy system. In fact, the NIC estimates that interconnectors, together with storage and demand-side response, could save consumers up to £8 billion per year by 2030.

Despite the obvious benefits of interconnectors, there is of course a rather enormous Brexit-shaped elephant in the room. It may come as something of a surprise, but I am cautiously optimistic about the future. This is because interconnectors make such good sense for consumers at both ends of the cable. The EU has long advocated the use of interconnectors, seeing them as a key tool to increase security of supply while driving down energy prices for consumers.

In recent years electricity has travelled primarily from mainland Europe towards the UK.  However, this hasn’t always been the case and it’s a trend that is likely to change in the future. A recent study by the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E) concluded that as Europe shifts to high levels of renewables, EU consumers and British renewable energy producers will benefit from the export of green power from the UK to mainland Europe.

No one really knows what direction negotiations will take in the coming months. However, I’m confident that policy makers on both sides will want to resist applying rules that restrict the free flow of energy, thereby preventing consumers in Britain and mainland Europe from having access to cheaper, cleaner and more secure energy.  Interconnectors only need a level playing field to compete in the market. This means preventing the imposition of tariffs or double-charging.  

The British energy system is evolving at an unprecedented pace, bringing with it new technologies and tools that will better meet the needs of consumers. But this evolution does not replace the need for a flexible energy mix in which new and more traditional technologies sit side-by-side: including renewables, gas and nuclear generation, battery storage, demand-side response and interconnectors. I firmly believe that interconnectors are a win-win as part of the mix, because they unlock our ability to benefit from the unique characteristics of neighbouring markets, while enabling a faster transition to the smarter and more sustainable energy system of tomorrow.

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