Blog 01 Mar 2024

Calum Duff is Grid Director at Thistle Wind Partners (TWP), looking after all things grid and networks-related for the Ayre and Bowdun offshore wind farms.

Earlier this month, Scottish Renewables held its first Grid and Networks Conference in Glasgow and peopled by the great and the good of the Grid and networks world. Grid has been a growing issue across the British network, and in Scotland in particular, as we look to embark on one of the most ambitious plans for network development since Lord Weir's initial plans for the “National Gridiron”.  Credit must go to Scottish Renewables in recognising the need to unite all parties as we stand on the precipice of these works.

The many speakers – from Graham Stuart, Minister for Energy Security & Net Zero, regulators, transmission operators, and developers like us – could agree on one thing. This was the urgent need to explain why “rewiring” Great Britain is essential if our outdated grid network is to contend with future energy consumption and if we are serious about Net Zero.

This need is particularly urgent in two communities where our grid connections will be: in Caithness (for Ayre) and in Aberdeenshire (for Bowdun). We have started introducing our offshore wind projects in both localities, which are at the intersection of a lot of energy infrastructure planning. People are asking urgently for one big picture for their regions that can explain all the infrastructure proposed. The longer this over-arching message from UK Government, regulators and the transmission operators takes to come, the more stress, confusion, and anger will grow.

The Minister did offer some reassurance to us, reiterating the Government’s commitment to its net-zero targets, to implementing the recommendations from Nick Winser’s watershed report, and the need for market reform to bring down energy bills. Overall, this was a brave and sensible speech from a politician facing an election year, which sets a standard for everyone in our industry to follow in talking about this infrastructure.

As an offshore wind developer, we were most keenly listening for some reassurance on three key topics at the event.

1. Rationalising the grid queue.

National Energy System Operator (ESO) outlined the challenge of connecting their current queue of almost 600GW of planned energy infrastructure in GB. Moving “zombie” and less feasible projects out of the queue, and accelerating connections for projects based on merit rather than ‘first come, first served’, has started to be addressed in the recent connections reforms. Further changes under discussion would represent a seismic shift in how networks manage energy supply and demand. For us, the changes are welcome as they are long overdue; the downside is that in this rush of regulatory change, developers have projects further bedevilled by uncertainty.

As an interim step, we would like to see publication of the current queue, so that we can see where our projects now sit, and have some advance visibility of a queue management system planned.

2. Making network charges for Scotland fairer.

Transmission Network Use of System charges (TNUoS), have been a hot topic across the industry as our energy mix has moved from a network dominated by large centralised power stations, to a network with a more disparate, spread of smaller generators, the question has been raised is the current methodology really fit for purpose?

In Scotland, these charges – already several times higher than in England – have the potential to double in some areas if there is not significant reform to the current mechanism.  Some reassurance came at the conference that Ofgem’s TNUoS Taskforce clearly understands all the conflicting interests and is actively designing reform however this cannot come soon enough to provide greater certainty to offshore wind generators making significant financial commitments.

3. Economic opportunity.

£90 billion is anticipated to be invested in transmission network upgrades in the UK over the next ten years, bringing economic opportunities and jobs, particularly in Scotland. Added to this is the long-term economic benefit from offshore wind too, as ScotWind developers have all set significant Scottish supply chain targets (TWP targets significant spend in Scotland over both its projects), coupled with the wider opportunity for port investment and development of innovative goods and services for export. We are already making progress: Scotland leads floating wind deployment with a number of world firsts under its belt, and universities and research centres that lead global research and development in this area.

However, for us, the worry is not about coming up with the jobs, but we may not be able to fill them in areas as varied as from welding to electrical engineering to marine sciences to mariners, and so it goes on…. This is why we already support early-years STEM programmes across the Highlands and Islands region (with partner UHI) and provide equipment, like training vessels, to local colleges.

The opportunity is there but it is fraught by uncertainty in the grid queue and regulatory environment (TNUoS is one of a long list of areas of concern) which passes to us as developers, and then to Scotland’s ports and businesses, and from there to educators trying to develop relevant future skills. As they say, no transition without transmission!

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