The debate over investment in major infrastructure projects is an issue that will resonate with every political party in the run-up to May’s general election. From the controversial HS2 high speed rail proposal to plans for new nuclear power capacity, infrastructure projects polarise public opinion like few other subjects. Kevin Rendell, Head of Major Infrastructure Development, explains National Grid’s position at the heart of the energy infrastructure challenge.
Great infrastructure debate
"As a country we need to be taking decisions today so that tomorrow’s energy infrastructure is in place and operational when we need it."
Kevin Rendell, Head of Major Infrastructure Development.
Worldwide capital project and infrastructure spending is expected to total $9 trillion by 2025, up from $4 trillion in 2012.
Source: Oxford Economics.
Whatever the shape of the political landscape after 7 May 2015, one certainty will remain: the UK has a big task ahead to build the infrastructure we need as a nation in the next decade and beyond.
Infrastructure spending is widely recognised as a key tool in boosting the UK economy, but of course spending money is only part of the equation: every major project must weigh up the benefit to the UK as a whole against the potential impact on local people and the disruption to communities.
The energy industry is front and centre of this whole debate, with investment in new nuclear power, onshore and offshore wind generation, and improved gas and electricity infrastructure all having a part to play in securing our energy future.
The challenge ahead
Over the next decade a significant proportion of the UK’s older, polluting power stations are expected to close. The new low carbon sources of generation set to replace them are either producing much more power, or will be in different locations, which means we will need to build new electricity connections.
The UK hasn’t seen the sheer size and scale of these new generators or new connection projects since the last big push for energy in the 1950s and 1960s. And these projects take years of planning, followed by years of building.
Take the Hinkley Point C project. EDF has spent millions of pounds and many years getting planning consent for the UK’s first nuclear power station in a generation. At National Grid we’ve spent six years working and consulting on our proposed 56km connection to get the electricity from the power station into the UK network. Our proposal is now with the Planning Inspectorate awaiting a decision. It will be at least another seven years before the power plant is built and our proposed line to connect it up will be ready.
So these are big, complicated, long-term projects. As a country we need to be taking decisions today so that tomorrow’s energy infrastructure is in place and operational when we need it.
What it means for National Grid
At National Grid our job is to connect new sources of power so that we have a secure and reliable supply of energy for our homes and businesses. This role puts us at the heart of some of the biggest infrastructure projects across the UK.
The Mid Wales Connection project is all about connecting proposed wind farm developments by a number of generators in Powys to the existing electricity network in Shropshire. We’ve been working on our plans to connect these for around five years and have held hundreds of meetings with landowners, local people, politicians and others over that time. Their feedback, together with our own environmental and technical assessments, have helped shape the project. So we went into our final stage of consultation with a proposal for a 50km connection, with lower height pylon designs and 13km of undergrounding.
Elsewhere, new energy projects proposed in Cumbria and Lancashire form the backbone of the North West Coast Connections (NWCC) project. This includes plans for NuGen’s 3.4GW nuclear power station at Moorside near Sellafield in Cumbria. This is a massive project. We have so far consulted on a number of options for connecting this power station, including: options to build offshore, onshore, and onshore with a tunnel under Morecambe Bay, which is our emerging preference.
There is also the Richborough Connection project which will connect power from Belgium, which comes into the UK at Richborough in Kent, via an undersea cable called the Nemo Link interconnector. At present there is no high-voltage National Grid electricity network in the Richborough area, so we will need to build a new connection to join Richborough to our existing high-voltage transmission network, approximately 20km away, near Canterbury.
Those are just some of the big projects we’re working on.
Consultation with communities
For every major project such as the ones I’ve mentioned, the views of local people are very important. Consultation with the communities affected starts early and forms a fundamental part of the way the plans are taken forward. In the case of the NWCC project for example, there have been a total of 63 public events and briefings to involve as many local stakeholders as possible. We also helped establish a stakeholder reference group to pull together local authorities and other stakeholders with an interest in this project. They’ve played a key part in helping us understand the potential impacts on local communities.
But of course sometimes people will oppose our plans and the objective for us is to strike the right balance between the practical and economic realities of a specific project and local people’s wishes.
We are working very hard to generate further debate around infrastructure issues because having these conversations is the best way of raising public awareness of the challenges that the UK faces. Our Powering Britain’s Future campaign, partnership in the Guardian Big Energy Debate, and involvement in DECC’s British Energy Challenge are three examples where we’re trying to take these issues to a wider audience.
Widening the debate on infrastructure
And it’s really important the energy industry as a whole takes the debate to a wider audience and gets better at explaining why the UK needs this new infrastructure. This conversation is crucial in building better understanding and public acceptance of the need for new energy infrastructure.
In recent times we have seen the major political parties conducting reviews focused on what the UK’s future infrastructure needs will be, and we support the idea of a long-term approach to infrastructure, tied into the regions.
Public acceptance, paired with a stable energy policy, is essential if investors are to have the confidence to invest in the new generation plant and we are to keep the lights on, keep costs down and ensure that the UK remains competitive.
There are no simple answers, but in my view it’s vital that as a nation we embrace the challenge of building robust energy infrastructure that will help to keep our economy moving well into the 21st Century.