Comment: Renewable energy and the connection crisis 

Alan Greenshields, Director of Europe for ESS Inc, dives into the connections crisis and the solutions needed to solve it.

In order to advance net-zero goals, guarantee energy security and reduce air pollutants, the need to transition to renewable energy is clear. The problem is that the mass deployment of renewable energy generation, and the energy storage required to enable its utilisation, faces a significant obstacle: connecting to the grid. 

In the UK, navigating the queue for new renewable projects (such as solar and wind farms) to be connected to the grid is a difficult and expensive process. This is hampering the transition to clean energy whilst putting the UK’s energy security at risk. 

  The backdrop to this is a global push towards net-zero which fuels the demand for renewable energy. In the UK, the Energy Security Strategy promises “secure, clean and affordable British energy for the long term.” Similarly, the EU has grand ambitions, aiming to be the “first climate-neutral continent” with the European Green Deal. And, across the Atlantic, the US has passed its $370 billion Inflation Reduction Act to encourage clean energy investment. 

There is tremendous opportunity and demand worldwide to retire polluting fossil fuels and usher in a new age of sustainable and clean energy. 

Renewable Deployment Hampered by the State of the Grid 

The UK has one of the most ambitious net zero policies in Europe. By 2030, the government plans to ensure that 95% of UK electricity will be low carbon. By 2035, they promise to deliver 70 GW of solar power and 50 GW of offshore wind. Yet, the country also has one of the most protracted connection queues for renewable projects, especially in rural areas, with over 200 GW of renewable energy sites waiting to be connected. 

There is up to a fifteen-year wait for some sites, leaving many companies waiting until 2036, whilst having to allocate significant capital to book grid capacity well in advance. These costs include application fees to the National Grid, feasibility study charges, connection charges and one-off costs – and that is just to get started. In some cases, renewable sites will end up paying connection costs that total up to four times the cost of construction. This calls the UK’s ability to meet current targets into question. 

Infrastructure Congestion 

Gridlock is caused by slow-moving planning permission, a poorly managed queue, and outdated infrastructure in the UK. Something must be done to alleviate these bureaucratic issues. In many areas, the grid simply cannot handle new connections as it was constructed to accommodate large, centralised generation plants rather than more widely distributed renewable sites. 

In previous decades, the national grid had 40-50 applications for connections annually, but this has risen to as many as 400 annually as renewables suppliers have proliferated. Grid operators cannot keep up with this demand if nothing is done to improve access to the physical infrastructure. 

Action must be taken to modernise and future-proof the grid. We must be prepared for a future with even more renewable integration. The sudden need for Europe to wean off Russian gas has been a serious wake-up-call to the shortcomings of our energy security and electricity infrastructure. 

Energy Storage and the Grid Future 

The solution to solving this connection crisis is to modernise our grid. This will require a significant investment of time, money, and skilled labour to achieve. A recent report by UK energy firm Octopus suggests that the country will need to construct six times the amount of electricity transmission infrastructure than has been deployed in the last three decades combined. 

A rapid and efficient option is to upgrade grid infrastructure to balance electricity supply and demand. Broad deployment of long-duration energy storage (LDES) would alleviate these issues by acting as a buffer between renewable sites and the grid. Long-duration batteries can store electricity generated during peak times of generation from renewable sources and then deploy that energy when demand rises.  

This can help balance the grid and mitigate the risk of blackouts. Deployment needs to come quickly, as recent data suggests that peak electricity demand in the UK will double by 2040

A good example of this approach was announced in Germany in June. LEAG, a large coal mining and generating company, plans to build up to 14GW of wind and solar energy generation with the renewable power supported by up to 3 GWh of long-duration energy storage and some hydrogen production to deliver green baseload power. 

Long-duration energy storage can support a resilient grid and pave the way for accelerated deployment of renewable energy, enabling the transition to net-zero, improving energy security, and reducing consumer costs. The time is now to deploy these innovative energy storage solutions to provide a solid foundation for modern, sustainable electricity infrastructure.  

Alan Greenshields is Director of Europe for ESS Inc