Aging UK grid harming renewable integration, says Solar Trade Association

An aging, unresponsive and "sclerotic" electricity grid is stunting the growth of renewable energy in the U.K., says the Solar Trade Association (STA), which has called on the new Conservative government to upgrade the country’s power infrastructure to make it more accommodating of clean energy sources.

With many sections of the grid already off-limits to new connections, and further shutdowns of additional capacity planned, the STA has urged the Conservatives to spend money on essential upgrades to the grid that are necessary to ensure the U.K. can meet its 2020 renewable energy goals.

The STA has identified 14 private sector distribution network operators (DNOs) that carry power from the grid to domestic and commercial customers as being unable to handle new large renewable energy projects.

One DNO – Western Power Distribution (which covers Wales, the southwest of England and the Midlands) – has put a six-year hold on new large clean energy integration in the counties of Somerset, Dorset, Cornwall and Devon, which are some of the sunniest parts of the British Isles. And according to a map from the DNO for the east and southeast of England – UK Power Networks – many areas of these regions barely have any renewable energy capacity.

"The grid is now sclerotic in places and there are even modest solar roofs that cannot get grid connections," said STA head of external affairs Leonie Greene. "We are trying to get the DNOs to operate on a more active business model but the amount of solar that is projected for 2023 is less than we have today."

The STA warns that the antiquated grid is dotted with information black spots, making it nearly impossible for trade bodies such as itself to assess how much actual capacity remains and how much is required to meet 2020 targets. The U.K. has pledged to produce 15% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020, and is currently around halfway there based on recent projections.

However, to be able to reach the 2020 target, the amount of power produced by renewable sources needs to more than double on current levels in just five years. “The new secretary of state has no time to waste to get the grid on track if we want a low-carbon electricity system,” added Greene.

High connection charges

The Guardian newspaper reports that solar energy company Sun4net has found that connection charges with some DNOs are prohibitively expensive for any business that wants to produce its own energy. Company director Ashley Seager revealed that just two out of 75 projects overseen by the company had proven feasible in recent months.

"For about 80% of those projects we looked at, grid connection was too expensive to make them viable," said Seager.

According to DNO Western Power Distribution, connection charges are agreed upon nationally with the electricity regulator Ofgem, and network upgrades can only go ahead once upfront payment for new connections was received.

"These require the connecting party to pay for the assets installed to directly connect them, and to contribute towards the cost of network reinforcement," said a Western Power Distribution spokesperson. "While there are circumstances where Western Power Distribution can reinforce the network ahead of need, these require demonstration to Ofgem that the benefits outweigh the costs to the wider network user."

Ofgem revealed that connections to the U.K. grid had grown by 40% in the past 12 months, with a large increase in small-scale generation. "In some areas this has put pressure on network capacity. This is why we have allowed major increases in investment and encouraged network companies to take creative approaches to connective generators without costly network upgrades," said Ofgem.

The power body added that it is consulting on whether further strategic investment is required in order to help power generators connect to the grid, and will be reviewing what is causing network constraints "more generally" in the near future.