Why Britain needs more pylons, and how to get them built.
Stonehaven’s Director of Policy, Adam Bell, spoke to the BBC in response to the Government’s announcement today on the insights to unlock consensus for the construction of more pylons to make energy cheaper for consumers. If you missed the interview, you can read his blog here.
The UK’s energy is too expensive. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the UK had amongst the highest electricity costs in Europe for industry. This was driven by a number of factors. The UK uses more gas to produce electricity compared to France or Germany, which has historically been more expensive. We are also reluctant to provide a de facto subsidy for industry by exempting them from network costs which in Germany are largely shoved onto the consumer.
We know how to make cheaper energy
Handily, we know how to make energy, especially electricity, cheaper. We build generators that cost less than the ones we already have. Even more handily, the cheapest forms of generation – wind and solar – are also low carbon.
But rather less handily, the windiest places are not where our existing generators are. A great deal of our generation is located near old coal fields, or where gas comes onshore from the North Sea, reflecting the historic geography of our energy supply. The pylons built to connect these places with our towns and cities do not reach out into the sea where offshore wind will be built, or provide enough capacity to bring all the wind power of Scotland down into England.
This means we need to build more if we want to hold down energy prices. But because we haven’t had to build out our grid extensively in decades, the actual process for building new high voltage transmission lines – the motorways of the power system – is incredibly clunky, and can take up to 14 years.
Coalition of supporters needed to bring about Winser Review reforms
Today the Government has published the results of an independent review by Nick Winser, former CEO of National Grid, intended to slash the time it takes to build new transmission lines by up to half, helping to get cheap generation onto the system faster. His recommendations cover the planning of new lines, the regulation of them and how they achieve development consent.
It’s this last point which is likely to be the most challenging in practice, as the regime as envisaged appears to involve any new lines having de facto planning consent from the outset, reducing the influence of local people on line design. This is in part a reflection of some of the biggest delays to new lines coming from political controversy around them, which leads to judicial reviews, public inquiries and politicians being hesitant to sign them off.
The Winser Review attempts to deal with this by calling on the Government and the network companies to launch an information campaign on why the grid build-out is needed, as well as proposing that anyone living near a line should be given a cash payment and nearby communities getting an enduring share of that line’s profits through a community fund.
In our experience of seeking to get people onboard with change, we suspect that this is unlikely to be enough to minimise the political risk that new transmission lines will face. It is vital that we build new transmission infrastructure to hold down energy bills for everyone. This means that it’s not just people who live near proposed lines who need to be engaged by a campaign, but everyone who stands to benefit from them too. This tackles the incentive problem all development control faces: the people who live next to a project have strong incentives to object – and their elected representatives have strong incentives to agree with them – while the benefit of the project is spread weakly throughout the rest of the population, who consequently have less interest in getting involved.
Creating a pro-pylon coalition that imposes a political cost on representatives who don’t want the views of their voters spoiled and are happy to lump the cost of higher bills on the rest of the public is how things get built faster. And, at this moment when cost of living pressures are overwhelming, faster construction is what we all need.