Skip to main content




UK–EU power links vital

18 Sep 2019 Dave Elliott
EU flags
(Image courtesy: Shutterstock/Rawpixel)

While politically the UK may soon be decoupled from the EU, it is busy building power grid links with mainland Europe. And some say it should build more, creating offshore wind hubs and network systems to help with green power balancing, exports and imports. For example, the planned 1.4 GW HVDC Viking inter-connector between Denmark and Lincolnshire will pass through or near some big offshore wind farms. And more are on the horizon.

National Grid has done comparative connection studies for the proposed 1.6 GW Eurolink to the Netherlands and 1.5 GW Nautilus link to Belgium (completion expected by around 2025 and 2027, respectively) with the proposed Sizewell C nuclear plant area in mind, but also local offshore wind projects. Some say the UK should be looking to build many tens of gigawatts of offshore wind in the mid-North Sea and also offshore connection hubs, like the artificial island proposed for Dogger Bank, almost 100 miles out from Hull.

Grid upgrade needed

Certainly, the resource is vast, and the study of European grid issues (PDF) produced by ENTSO-E, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, sees the UK as one of the key hubs in the network. The ENTSO-E study of EU grid issues up to 2040 updates its 2016 “Ten Year Network Development Plan” (TYNPD). It says that there will be a need for increased transmission capacity in some places, both internally and to other countries, to make the system work in 2040. This is largely due to the increasing levels and use of renewables to supply all areas of the European grid; the report says that up to 75% of the total demand of renewable energy will be reached by 2040, so that “European countries will more than ever need to rely on each other through cross-border exchanges”.

Physical connector links with the EU energy system could mean having to comply with internal EU energy market rules

Dave Elliott

However, interestingly, it suggests that there will be different balances in net supply across the EU. From ENTSO-E’s studies, it looks like NW wind, offshore especially, dominates, with a lot of surplus power shifted east at times. Much of that will presumably be from the North Sea. But it will be variable, so there will be technical, regulatory and market challenges to ensure stability, with increased system flexibility. And a need for new grids.

ENTSO-E says that, overall, the benefits of the expanded network far outweigh the necessary efforts that will need to be mobilized for its realization: “A lack of new investments by 2040 would hinder the development of the integrated energy market and would lead to a lack of competitiveness.In turn, this would increase prices on electricity markets leading to higher bills for consumers. By 2040, the ‘No Grid’ extra bill (€43 billion a year in the average case) would be largely above the expected cost of the new grid (€150 bn in total in the TYNDP 2016 plus internal reinforcements, 25% discount rate)”. A lack of investments would also affect the stability of the overall grid and could, in some regions, “threaten the continued access to electricity which also has a cost for society”. And finally, in all the scenarios the organization looked at, “without grid extension, Europe will not meet its climate targets”.

UK benefits

The UK has to be part of this, if only for parochial reasons. It will have a lot of surplus renewable power to export at times, as the renewable capacity builds up to 40, 50 and 60 GW, more than enough much of the time to meet the country’s needs (summer night-time demand is around 20 GW, peak winter demand under 60 GW).  At times though, when UK renewable availability is low and demand high, it may need some top-ups via the grid interconnectors. That said, the exports are likely to dominate, so the UK would be a net earner of substantial income, assuming the surplus can be sold at reasonable prices. That would help offset the cost of building up renewables, and the links can also clearly help with balancing. As the climate policy think tank E3G said earlier this year, the UK government must continue to work closely with the EU to develop cross-border power grid interconnections after Brexit, if it is to ensure the lowest-cost decarbonization pathway. More linking of the UK to EU power grids could help boost its energy security and flexibility as renewables grow.

Last year, interconnectors provided 6% of UK power supply, via the four existing links, making the UK a net importer of power across these links. However, as I noted in my last post, its wind potential is very large, so that pattern should change as more renewables are installed in the UK. Indeed it already has, with the UK being a net exporter to France for much of this year. The government currently plans to have at least 9 GW more grid link capacity. However, the ability to trade profitably depends on many factors — not just the availability of capacity and grid links, but also demand patterns, prices, the regulatory framework and wider policy context. The E3G paper warned that leaving the EU will “severely reduce” the UK’s ability to influence EU energy policy in line with its interests, which may make reaping the full benefits of greater inter-links harder. It could render the UK a rule-taker from the EU in some respects, as physical connector links with the EU energy system could mean having to comply with internal EU energy market rules, such as those covering energy, environment, state aid and competition. Sounds like a familiar issue…

The UK has some of the key resources needed for the emerging Europe-wide grid system (including its vast offshore wind resource) and the power engineering and marine technology expertise (including for offshore wind and undersea links). It may not like the EU single power market any more, but it may nevertheless need to get into it. At least that is the logic of the energy system. Political logic may be different, although it is perhaps worrying that, reportedly, Ireland is looking to a new 500 mile under-sea HVDC power link to France, and the EU market, by-passing the UK, with some funding from the EU.  It may also be worrying that, post-Brexit,  the UK will presumably miss out on EU funding for grid development – like the €800 m available  under the Connecting Europe programme for interconnectors. That’s supporting some of the already-planned and agreed UK links, but the UK may not be eligible for more after Brexit. So it’s all a bit uncertain and a bit of a mess, whereas the need for links is getting ever clearer and UK green power capacity is building up — offering an export potential.

Copyright © 2020 by IOP Publishing Ltd and individual contributors