Sector-wide collaboration must remove barriers to rapid progress

In the first in a regular series of comment pieces for Utility Week, National Grid’s chief strategy officer Ben Wilson argues that landmark net-zero policy pledges will only be meaningful if they are backed up by reforms to the planning system and to regulation.

The swathe of recent announcements on energy rightly reinforces a bold ambition to reach net zero and increase the amount of renewable energy on the grid. Not only will this see emissions vastly reduced, but it will also help to lower consumer bills over the long-term and further still increase our energy resilience. Renewables are the cheapest form of power generation and can reduce our gas consumption.

The Energy Security Bill, Holistic Network Design and Networks Options Assessment show the breadth of opportunity for investment and innovation across the UK, and recognise that this investment and innovation is needed at pace. We must now focus on the delivery challenge ahead. It’s clear that major reform is needed in three key areas.

Firstly, we need clear and decisive planning reform. This is long overdue; the current system is not reflective of the UK’s net zero ambition. Put simply, it’s not designed for the scale of infrastructure that is now needed, or the speed at which it needs to be consented.

Positive progress is being made with the review of National Policy Statements; it’s vital, however, that these statements reflect the urgency of the need for new infrastructure, provide clear direction on issues, and set out the role and expectations of stakeholders involved in the planning process. There needs to be joined up thinking across the piece; aligning regulatory and planning processes will accelerate the delivery of strategically important infrastructure.

Secondly, we must see regulatory reform. The current framework doesn’t allow the anticipatory investment needed to deliver the ambition set out in the British Energy Security Strategy. Network capacity must be built when we can see the demand coming; it is too slow to wait until the connection request is made to start the planning process. Having infrastructure underway as offshore projects come to life would mean quicker connections and more certainty for developers. It would mean more green electricity on the grid, faster. And it would mean less carbon emissions and an increased diversity of supply. Under the current system, delays are inevitable – time we can’t afford to waste if we are to meet 2030 goals.

Finally, we must also begin an urgent sector-wide conversation about minimising the impact and maximising the benefits at a grassroots level for those who will host increased infrastructure in their local area. Communities up and down the country will be impacted by the energy transition.  To ensure it is a fair transition and nobody is left behind, the sector’s approach to community engagement and involvement will need to be overhauled. Community consultations on individual projects are not enough.  Local communities need to see the direct benefits from hosting critical national infrastructure, not just through lower bills and cleaner energy overall, but through investment in jobs and skills, and local benefits.

The Energy Security Bill, the British Energy Security Strategy and other recent energy announcements demonstrate that investing in a net zero future will address all three parts of the energy trilemma. We are very supportive of the scale of ambition and recognition of the need for joined up thinking, and of the need to accelerate both co-ordination and investment to bring bills down sooner, improve energy resilience still further, and meet the government’s net zero targets. We must now all work together to remove the hurdles that stand in the way of quick progress.