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Grid Constraints: One of the major challenges in the UK

Updated: Jun 25

Did you know the UK is facing increasing power outages caused by grid constraints, which are affecting millions of homes and businesses? In this blog, we will look into what grid constraints are, why they happen in the UK, how they affect our daily lives and possible solutions.

What is a Grid Constraint and Why Do They Exist in the UK?

The UK’s grid’s grid constraints hinder effective electricity transmission and distribution. These factors raise the grid’s load, making it more prone to failures and inefficiency.

Solar panels on a green field

Increasing Renewable Generations

The grid needs a constant balance to stabilise electricity supply and demand. If the balance is not maintained, power quality can degrade or even cause outages. As the UK is committed to achieving net zero by 2050, the government and businesses are increasing the use of renewable energy to reduce carbon emissions and reach sustainability goals. This involves discovering more renewable sources and establishing more power stations. For example, EDF Energy is building two nuclear power stations at Hinkley Point on the West Somerset Coast, and the Sizewell C project is underway. 

Traditional power plants use fossil fuels to generate electricity and have a consistent electricity output. In contrast, the supply of renewable sources such as solar and wind is unstable, causing fluctuations in electricity supply. Solar panels generate electricity only when the sun is shining, while wind turbines work only when the wind blows. The unpredictability of the weather and the construction of power stations create a massive challenge in balancing supply and demand in real-time. 

Increasing consumption from electrification

At the same time, energy consumption is rising from electrification, such as electrical vehicles (EVs), heat pumps and smart homes. According to data from the Climate Change Committee, electricity demand is expected to double to 612TWh under net zero plans from 2010 to 2050. The use of EVs is rapidly growing, and charging these vehicles adds load to the grid, particularly during peak hours when people return home and plug in their cars. Heat pumps increase the adoption of electric heating systems, replacing gas heating, thereby increasing winter electricity demand. Moreover, smart home technology is becoming more popular nowadays. It’s easy accessibility leads to more frequent use of smart home systems, resulting in increased electricity usage.

Ageing Grid Infrastructure

The grid infrastructure in the UK is ageing, with most of it designed and built decades ago. It is used to connect electricity generation with consumption, but it hasn’t been improved to the same levels. Therefore significant increases in supply and demand can lead to grid overload. Also, the grid requires increasingly frequent maintenance and upgrades, which is expensive and time-consuming. Some older parts of the grid have insufficient technology to manage and develop renewable energy sources effectively. This technological mismatch can hinder the overall grid’s efficiency, dependability and ability to support net zero.

Insufficient Power Grid and Long Establishment Times

The development process of the power grid is lengthy. The planning, approval, and construction process typically takes 7-14 years. For example, National Grid conducts technical evaluations, environmental impact assessments, and extensive public consultations. The planning and approval stage, including submitting a Development Consent Order application and public hearings, takes 5-7 years for major transmission projects. After receiving approval, construction activities such as line installation and cable laying take additional 2-7 years, depending on the scale and complexity of the project.

How do grid constraints affect people's daily lives? 

High Energy Costs

Smart grid

It is costly to balance the power grid. When the weather is sunny or windy, energy storage systems are needed to store the excess electricity, or the utilities need to curtail the energy production. In contrast, when the weather is unstable, backup power resources such as fossil fuels are required to maintain a stable electricity supply. The operation costs of both methods are higher than those of solar or wind energy. Also, constrained grids often incur higher transmission and distribution losses due to outdated infrastructure and inefficiency in handling peak loads. These energy losses mean more energy must be generated to fulfil demand, leading to rising production costs and energy inefficiency. According to the National Grid Electricity Systems Operator, over £7 billion was spent balancing the grid between 2022 and 2023, which is trending upwards. The costs of balancing the grid and reducing profitability from energy curtailment are passed on to consumers, who bear the burden through higher electricity bills, impacting household costs of living and business operations.

Creates obstacles to renewable energy development

Person drilling a solar panel

Limited capacity and connectivity hindered the development of renewable energy. The existing grid infrastructure is already nearing its maximum capacity, and adding more renewable energy sources may cause grid congestion when the grid cannot handle extra power flows without risking instability or outage. Hence, this caps on renewable output, and limits the ability to develop new projects.

Furthermore, large-scale renewable energy projects like wind and solar farms are mainly located in remote areas, where there is a lack of transmission lines that connect the generated energy to the power grid. Because of the capacity constraints, renewable energy project developers often face extended waiting times to secure grid connections, which delays renewable energy development and increases project costs. In the long term, failing to fully integrate renewable energy sources due to grid constraints may result in continuous reliance on fossil fuels, leading to higher energy prices and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Possible solutions for easing grid constraints

The main challenge for the UK in achieving net zero by 2050 is grid constraint, which cannot be solved easily just by generating more solar power. In my opinion, there are two options to ease grid constraints. The first option is to improve the power grid infrastructure. Although this can indeed achieve net zero, it requires a big investment and compliance with numerous regulations. While it is what the government is looking into, it takes time to fix. The second option is to look for new energy sources to avoid transmission through the power grid in response to the energy demands. Two such options are green hydrogen and heat. 

Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysis using electricity from renewable generation and emits no greenhouse gases during production. When renewable generation cannot meet the demand due to weather uncertainty, hydrogen can be served as a substitute solution when there is weather uncertainty. It can be activated immediately, similar to traditional power generation, and does not need to be transported through the grid. This reduces the reliance on the energy grid and balances it.

There are various renewable and reusable heat sources, such as geothermal energy, river source energy, energy from waste, and waste heat from data centres, that can reduce energy usage and reliance on the power grid, as they are transferred through pipelines, Moreover, if the government and private developers can expand and establish a comprehensive heat network, the final consumers could benefit from lower electricity costs, which increase affordability. Easing grid constraints is important to support the UK's goal of achieving net zero by 2050. By considering these options, grid constraints can be addressed.

Do you think of the other solutions to ease grid constraint? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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1 Comment

This is a great post, Tiffany. Of your "new energy sources" solution (finding more non-electric sources of heat) the second seems most fruitful to me, namely, better use of waste heat. You mention using heat from data centres which, with the rise of AI, social media etc, generate ever-increasing amounts of waste heat. People are also looking at the considerable waste heat generated in the London Underground system.

Another possibility can be to make proper use of the surprisingly large amount of waste heat coming from nuclear power stations, which can be 60-70% of the total energy generated. All but one of the UK's existing nukes are located out in the countryside, miles from anywhere, and thus not suitable fo…

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