Janine Freeman, National Grid’s Head of EU and UK Public Affairs, describes how the company’s ‘Powering Britain’s Future’ campaign is encouraging a nation-wide conversation about some of the unprecedented energy challenges faced by the UK.
At National Grid we put a lot of effort into trying to understand what the future UK energy mix will look like so we can work out what infrastructure we will need to build for the future.
There’s no crystal ball of course. So we work with experts to determine the most likely scenarios for what lies ahead.
But whichever way you look at it, one thing hits you straight away: we, and the rest of the energy industry, have a lot of building to do. New generation plant and grid connections are an important part of that. And we need to get on with it to keep the lights on.
A quarter of the UK’s generating capacity will be closed by 2020 as it is either too old or unable to meet tough climate change legislation.
Of course the Government is working hard on the policy front. The Energy Bill, currently going through parliament, focuses on Electricity Market Reform and other measures designed to attract the investment needed.
But National Grid faces a big challenge itself because the energy map is being redrawn to accommodate new sources of generation.And it all needs connecting up.
It will be no surprise to you that building major infrastructure like pylons is a very different proposition today than it was when the National Grid was first built back in the 1940s and 50s. This time round, we face a much bigger public acceptability challenge.
The public is seeing a constant stream of negative headlines relating to energy bills, climate change, wind farms and nuclear power. With a lack of clarity on government energy policy, people are understandably struggling to see the big picture. It is difficult to get to grips with the options, to get a handle on the costs, or to see the longer term opportunities.
Government and industry have not clearly articulated the difficult trade-offs we will need to make as a country if we want a safe, secure, affordable and sustainable energy future. So unsurprisingly, plans for the construction of new power lines are usually met with great opposition.
Of course, I’m not expecting people to ever love our pylons – even if we do a better job at explaining the energy story! But I am hoping that people will to be able to understand why they are needed, as well as some of the benefits they bring. And I hope they will feel that they have been engaged in a debate in which their views have been taken into consideration.
That’s why we are doing a lot of work in this area through a campaign that we called ‘Powering Britain’s Future’.
We have brought together leaders from across the energy industry, along with representatives of government, consumer and environmental groups to discuss the UK energy challenge.
The aim of the dialogue is to talk frankly – to get an open exchange of views going and to work towards a consensual way forward. Three themes are emerging – a need for clearer communication of the energy challenge, together with a rebuilding of trust in the energy industry, and meaningful engagement of local communities.
And to support all of this, we need a much stronger public narrative on the future of energy that answers a number of questions. For example, where will jobs be created? Where does infrastructure need to be built? Why are we making all this low carbon investment – while the country is going through tough economic times and fuel poverty is on the rise? And why is this infrastructure important for security of supply?
If the Government and industry do not answer these questions clearly, uncertainty will continue, affecting construction programmes and putting infrastructure investment at risk. This will ultimately end up costing the consumer or tax payer more and may limit the opportunities to create jobs and economic growth.
So, what’s the solution?
This is a tough one! When people think about energy, they don’t break it down into segments. They don’t think about nuclear separately from wind, or energy efficiency, or smart meters. They want to understand the whole picture and how it all fits together. So we need to set it out clearly.
Government, the energy industry and its regulator, Ofgem, must speak with one voice on this issue. We need a single narrative to explain the overarching aim for Britain’s future energy systems.
This narrative must explain the challenges and the opportunities. It must explain how careful choices are being made to get the right balance between delivering on the low carbon agenda and the economic agenda. And it it’s important for people to engage in the debate and shape the solutions.
National Grid is taking this message to the industry, Government, communities and other stakeholders – we are committed to playing our part in literally Powering Britain’s Future.
I would welcome views on the issues I’ve described here and particularly your thoughts on the energy narrative we should be building for the UK. Please comment below.