Building more interconnection with the EU is a ‘no-regrets’ option for UK decarbonisation
The decision by Japanese firm Hitachi this month to postpone the Wyfla nuclear power station development in Anglesey, as well as its Oldbury project near Bristol, leaves a substantial gap in future low carbon electricity supply for the UK.
Work has started on Hinkley Point in Somerset, but this is the only one of the six major nuclear projects in the pipeline to progress. Last year Toshiba, another Japanese company, pulled out of developing a power plant at Moorside in Cumbria.
The proposed developments by Chinese firm CGN at Sizewell (Suffolk) and Bradwell (Essex) are politically contentious and yet to be agreed.
In 2008, the Labour government set out its strategic vision for a future UK low carbon power sector, which had nuclear at its centre. But in the 20 years since, the economics of nuclear have deteriorated, while the remarkable drop in the cost of renewables and flexible energy sources is threatening the profitability of large, inflexible power stations.
There are currently four high-voltage electricity interconnectors that connect Britain to the Netherlands (BritNed), France (IFA), and the island of Ireland (Moyle and EWIC). A fifth connection, running to Belgium (Nemo), is due to go live at the end of January.
At least another eight are planned to be developed by the late 2020s, nearly trebling the supply capacity that currently exists.
Interconnectors are important for energy and climate change for several reasons. They help decarbonise UK electricity consumption by importing lower carbon power from countries such as France which has lots of nuclear power, and – in future – Norway and Iceland which generate electricity from hydro and geothermal.
They also contribute to decarbonisation by helping to match supply and demand, which in turn allows more renewables and electric vehicles.
Excess electricity can then be exported during periods of low demand or imported when demand is high – something that helps with security of electricity supply, as imports can complement domestic power generation.
Interconnectors also help reduce electricity prices. The UK has higher wholesale power prices than other EU countries, meaning electricity typically flows to the UK from markets where power is less expensive. Buying this cheaper electricity lowers prices here, which reduces consumer bills.
Even though the current and previous governments have actively encouraged the building of interconnectors, the UK leaving the EU threatens their development and operation.
After Brexit the UK is expected to leave the EU’s internal energy market, as well as key EU market arrangements and trading platforms. These allow electricity trade to happen in the most efficient and cost-effective way and losing access to them could lead to higher bills for consumers.
This would also reduce the system benefits of developing interconnectors as they cannot work at their most effective, which in turn would have negative consequences for future development of renewables. But irrespective of the outcome of Brexit, the UK should build more interconnection as it is a ‘no-regrets’ option for the UK.
Even after leaving the EU, they can still needed to help with the transition to a low carbon energy system, the least-cost pathway to decarbonisation, and fill the capacity gap from the postponed nuclear plants.
The UK and EU will need to continue cooperating on climate change and energy issues post Brexit, because the connected physical space between them means that choices made by one will impact the other.
As the Brexit negotiations move towards discussions on the future relationship, the UK should prioritise interconnectors in discussion on future cooperation and commit to cross-border initiatives in energy markets around the North Sea region.
The rationale to build interconnectors and their contribution to energy and tackling climate change has long been recognised, but there is now an even greater need to construct them.
Despite Brexit, the UK government needs to bolster its support for new interconnectors and maintain high levels of cooperation with the EU and regional partners to ensure they get built and the UK stays on the path to decarbonisation.
Joseph Dutton is a policy adviser for the global climate change think-tank E3G. All views are his own. He tweets at @JDuttonUK.