Making connections

Frustration at a local level about delays in connecting low-carbon technologies to the grid often come down to a failure of communication between local authorities and their networks. This was the view expressed at our latest roundtable bringing together networks and councils, which also discussed the need for clarity on whole system planning.

Networks and local authorities are often “not speaking the same language” when it comes to mapping out regional energy demands over the coming decades.

This was one of the takeaways from the latest in a series of roundtables hosted by Utility Week in association with SSEN and SGN, which saw local authority executives discuss their challenges in securing the capacity they need for their decarbonisation plans.

Participants stressed their appetite to work more closely with energy networks to understand the cost and timescale of their plans but admitted relationships need to evolve to allow this.

As an example of how local plans can be impacted by constraints on connecting to the grid, a London borough council officer described the work they were currently undertaking around heat zoning, ahead of local authorities receiving new powers to co-ordinate this action in 2025.

They pointed to two main challenges for councils – lack of resources to carry out a heat zoning co-ordinator role and uncertainty over receiving grid connections.

They said: “We know from just putting in individual heat pumps in a few of our buildings that the DNO (distribution network operator) queuing system for upgrading capacity on the electricity grid is a hold up. It’s already a problem and if we’re starting to talk about big heat networks, that’s going to be even more of a problem.

“I know the DNOs and the government are aware of the need to get something better than the current queuing system and that would be enormously helpful to us as we go down that path.”

They also referenced the challenge in densely populated areas of data centres sucking up capacity, adding: “There needs to be better planning powers around the connection of some of these very, very big demand loads onto the grid.

“We probably need something similar to heat zoning powers for the electricity grid… a more strategic way of managing some of these big loads. Not banning them from connecting but managing their place in the queue, stopping them from holding that capacity when they’re not going to connect for many years.”

Another senior figure from a borough council talked about their experience of applying for a capacity upgrade, only to receive a connection offer equivalent to a fifth of what was asked for.

They said: “It was the communication that was the big problem there and it shows we need to talk about releasing capacity in a phased way. We’d much prefer to take a heat network approach to our town centre rather than have a bunch of big developments each wanting a big amount of grid capacity to run huge air source heat pumps on each site.

“It would be better if we could just have be having the conversation with the DNO about how we phase network connections to bring our heat network on stream. We need a policy for that approach rather than a policy for each development.”

Cost of grid upgrades stymying ambition

A representative of one of the net zero hubs – regional bodies advising councils on their decarbonisation projects – said constraint concerns were already having an impact on the renewables projects being developed in their area.

They said: “The feedback we get is that developers are making projects smaller than they otherwise could be so they don’t exceed the 1MW trigger point where they have to get involved with costs in the transmission network.

“There seems to be frustration there from both the local authority and the DNO. One thing that might help is if the transmission operator was more visible.”

Several councils referenced projects to utilise hydrogen, principally for transport or industrial use. One talked about their authority’s desire to link up large renewable generation projects with hydrogen production facilities.

However, this has been complicated by large parts of their area being covered by a water neutrality zone.

They said: “We are very constricted in consumption of water, which means we are already seeing applications for some fairly small hydrogen electrolyzers being turned down just because of water supply.

“So unfortunately we have had to very much focus on electrification despite the fact that we would really like to pursue a whole systems approach.”

Other councils said they would like to pursue a whole systems approach but that uncertainty over the role of hydrogen in heating made this difficult.

They also pointed to question marks about the role flexibility would play in the future energy system as well as stressing the importance of energy efficiency in reducing the need for capacity upgrades, with several councils bemoaning the lack of support for retrofitting from government.

Different world views

This point returned the conversation to communication, with one representative of a combined authority bemoaning the lack of information from government and Ofgem on how a whole systems approach can be pursued locally.

They added: “We have very limited resources to try to figure this out and I wonder if there is an obligation from networks to reach out and talk to us in our own language about what all this means. The engagement is already there but it does often feel like we’re not speaking the same language.

“We can do the local area energy plans involving all the relevant stakeholders, including the networks, who’ve been very cooperative in doing those plans, but then whether that actually gets translated into practice is more the concern.

“A lot of the consultations we’ve seen have been very much about the mechanics – about what new system needs to be achieved as opposed to why it’s actually being done. So it’s not so much about translating from French to English, it’s more about different world views.”

A member of the energy services team at one county council talked about the challenges of dealing with two DNOs within their patch and the sometimes differing approaches taken. They also discussed the differing approaches to stakeholder engagement within different parts of the same businesses.

They said: “We have good engagement with the relationship management team but it’s when we get to the connections team that you sometimes find a disconnect.

“We’ve had some active applications to connect that were in place for more than a year, it took a very long time to get the connections team to understand what we were trying to do. We then received two connection offers which had very little relevance to what we’re actually trying to do.

“There’s clearly a lot of more work could be done behind the scenes to make connection offers relevant and to really understand what the applications are trying to achieve.”

Communication, collaboration and data

Responding to the comments, SSE’s lead relationship manager for connections Austen Toone said all DNOs were mindful of the need to tackle the queue for grid connections but stressed the need for a collaborative approach.

He said: “We’re regulated businesses and we have to follow the processes that are set out and that is currently on a first-come-first-served basis. That means that if a data centre comes to us and has applied before a hospital that needs its power we have to prioritise the data centre, as they are first in the queue, even if they’re not shovel ready. That means the data centre can potentially hold that capacity, preventing the hospital from connecting. We have to ensure we manage this queue as best as possible and that requires a collaborative approach across industry.”

He added: “The reality of the situation is that it’s about communication, collaboration and its about that transparency of data.

“One of the key things for me is about the planning of projects. We don’t get consulted at the earliest stage and if you’re applying for over 1MVA we have to submit a transmission impact assessment report. That can take up to three months to come back to us with an indicative date and a further nine months for confirmation.

“The reality is that in our Southern licence area, National Grid will come back to us and say if you want the megawatts it subject to reinforcement works and the earliest date that works will be undertaken at the moment is 2037 for some of our Grid Supply Points. That is unacceptable but at the moment that is the situation.

“There’s work going on to reform the process and bring those dates forward to achieve net zero. But in the meantime we’d just urge councils to engage us as early as possible.”

Colin Thomson, regional development manager for SGN, also encouraged local authorities to keep up a regular dialogue with their gas network.

He said: “There’s a big education piece that is needed about the different roles hydrogen can play, whether that is in heat, transport, industrial use. It’s important that councils are aware of the work that’s going on around that, even if it doesn’t seem immediately relevant to your short-term plans.

“We are working together on a whole systems approach across gas and electricity to provide that guidance for local authorities around the local area energy plan.”

Thomson also addressed the comments made throughout the discussion about energy efficiency, adding: “We really need to think about the fabric first approach, both because it’s so relevant to the kind of technologies you might want to employ and also because the ultimate aim is to reduce energy consumption overall.”

While there is clearly work to do to speed up connections and to improve the dialogue between networks and councils, it was clear from this discussion that the will is very much there.

Utility Week, SGN and SSEN will be exploring this theme further in an in-depth research report to be published in December.

SSEN will be hosting a connections reform webinar on 15th November. To sign up click here