Fuel for Thought
How ready is the National Grid for the energy transition?
Jul 09 2023
The future of the United Kingdom's sustainable minerals supply chain, which lies at the heart of several British industries ranging from automobile manufacturing to defence, is being significantly impacted by a capacity shortage in the national electricity grid, as a new research study reveals.
The study, released by the Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, highlights the substantial obstacles created by grid limitations in areas abundant with minerals like Cornwall. These obstructions hinder the progress of developing essential national resources, crucial for the UK's industrial future.
The research points out that Cornwall alone has the potential to cater for over half of the country's lithium demand by 2030, a key ingredient for electric vehicle batteries and a fundamental player in the UK's transition to a carbon-neutral, renewable energy economy.
Moreover, the South West region, blessed with a rugged granite topography, is rich in critical minerals like tin and tungsten. The region is also a potential location for a multi-billion-pound electric vehicle battery plant for Jaguar Land Rover in Somerset, with negotiations reported to be in an advanced stage.
Given the urgency of the situation, industry leaders are advocating for improved infrastructure to boost the home-grown production capacity of critical minerals, in accordance with the UK's Critical Minerals Strategy. An important proposal among these includes sourcing power from the planned floating wind farms in the Celtic Sea directly into Cornwall. As tensions with China, the world's largest producer of 12 out of 18 critical minerals, continue to rise, such a strategy is vital to ensuring a steady supply of essential minerals for the UK.
Glenn Caplin-Grey, CEO of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), is a vocal advocate for these changes. He observes that despite being crucial to the implementation of the UK government's Critical Minerals Strategy, Cornwall struggles with one of the most constricted grid networks in the country. Despite boasting an impressive portfolio of natural resources including wind, solar, and geothermal, renewable energy providers in the region are told to expect grid connection delays of over a decade.
This constraint coincides with a mineral industry desperate for clean energy to manufacture essential raw materials like lithium and tin. Although these materials play a significant role in the UK's transition to renewable energy, their production is thwarted by grid limitations. A paradigm shift is necessary, urging the National Grid and The Crown Estate to align their strategies with the broader national interest.
Companies such as Cornish Lithium echo these concerns, highlighting that the rate of lithium extraction from granite and deep geothermal brines may be significantly slowed down due to grid capacity limitations. Hence, securing long-term power purchase agreements with renewable energy providers is integral to the sustainable development of lithium in Cornwall.
The renewable sector must adapt to this challenge, as solar projects face extensive waiting periods. Grid connection delays pose a significant hurdle to the UK's ambitions of scaling up solar power generation. According to Solar Energy UK, a prominent industry body, many solar projects are facing a staggering 10-15 year wait for grid connections.
A massive overhaul of the national grid, deemed as 'The Great Grid Upgrade', is essential to facilitate a surge in renewable projects across England and Wales. This ambitious programme is crucial for the UK to meet its net zero targets, reduce fossil fuel reliance, and contribute to lower energy bills.
The National Grid is currently focusing on nine onshore projects, representing nearly £4.5bn worth of network infrastructure by the end of the decade. These projects are critical for transferring clean energy from generation points to areas of demand.
Simultaneously, the National Grid is also in the process of reforming its queueing system and plans to introduce development milestones for projects to maintain their position in the queue.
This significant transformation of the National Grid infrastructure is vital for the UK's green future. It is a critical move towards facilitating a seamless transition to renewable energy, reducing reliance on foreign minerals, and creating a sustainable and resilient national energy framework.
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