- Great Britain’s renewable power generation capacity is expanding far faster than the electricity transmission grid, creating a key stumbling block in the race to Net Zero: the volume of wind power that could not be delivered to consumers, forcing continued reliance on fossil fuel-fired generation to meet demand, more than tripled between 2016 and 2022.
- Continuing to prioritise renewables deployment over grid expansion would prevent Britain from reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to Net Zero by 2050: power sector emissions in 2023-2050 surpass the total required to reach Net Zero by 55% under a scenario in which authorities fail to deliver planned transmission system upgrades, despite deploying adequate offshore wind capacity, new analysis by Aurora Energy Research finds.
- Delaying grid buildout would not reduce costs for consumers: failing to deliver all of the grid upgrades currently planned by Ofgem and National Grid would not cost any less than deploying the required infrastructure in time, Aurora’s modelling shows.
Renewable power generation represents one of Great Britain’s greatest successes in the race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to Net Zero1 by 2050. The country’s installed renewable power generation capacity more than tripled from 2012 to 2022, allowing renewable power plants to account for 41% of total electricity generation in 2022.2 Continuing this expansion will be crucial to achieving Net Zero—renewables will account for two thirds of total generation in 2050 if Britain reaches Net Zero by that year, Aurora Energy Research forecasts—but a worsening problem threatens to curb further progress.
Britain’s electricity transmission system has not expanded at the same pace as the country’s renewable power generation capacity, meaning that at certain times, available renewable power supply exceeds the capacity of some transmission assets. In these situations, renewable generators must reduce their output to avoid grid malfunction, and other generators—often gas-fired power stations—have to increase their output to meet demand. This process, known as “curtailment”, is on the rise as the gap between power generation and grid capacity widens. Wind curtailment more than tripled between 2016 and 2022, with the volume of curtailed wind power in 2022 equalling 1% of Britain’s total electricity consumption. Managing these imbalances cost British electricity consumers £2bn in 2022 alone.
Closing the gap between renewable power generation and grid capacity is crucial to reaching Net Zero by 2050. Expanding renewables capacity alone is not enough—Aurora forecasts that Britain needs to deploy 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030 to be on track to reaching Net Zero by 2050, but calculates that if Britain were to install that offshore wind power without adequate transmission system upgrades,3 power sector emissions in 2023-2050 would surpass the total required to reach Net Zero by 55%. By contrast, delivering all of the grid upgrades currently planned by energy market regulator Ofgem and transmission system operator National Grid4 would cause power sector emissions in 2023-2050 to fall 9% below the level required to reach Net Zero by 2050. Curtailment due to insufficient grid capacity accounts for 11% of total renewable generation in 2030 under Aurora’s scenario without adequate grid upgrades, more than triple the volume of curtailment in 2030 if Ofgem and National Grid’s plans are delivered.
Costs should not deter action to expand the grid. The buildout envisaged by Ofgem and National Grid would cost an additional £49bn compared to Aurora’s “inadequate upgrades” scenario, but the increase would be offset by lower grid management costs, as a result of reduced curtailment. Total power system costs, ultimately borne by consumers, under both scenarios are roughly equal—the “upgrades delivered” scenario costs just under 1% less.
Deploying the necessary grid infrastructure to reach Net Zero will not be straightforward. Delivering all of the planned upgrades would cause cumulative steel demand for the transmission system to rise by 450% between 2025 and 2035. Britain will face strong competition globally to meet this demand—Aurora expects Germany and Spain each to deploy more than three times as much additional grid infrastructure by 2050 as Britain, for example, likely straining global supply chains. Expansion projects in Britain also face the challenge of securing planning permission, with projects typically taking 6-8 years to obtain all of the required permits to begin construction. Growing backlash from local residents poses a key obstacle to streamlining the process.
Richard Howard, Global Research Director, Aurora Energy Research, comments:
“Great Britain has made great strides in building wind and solar projects over the past decade and has ambitious targets to deploy more renewable power generation. This is necessary but not sufficient to deliver our Net Zero targets: we also need to accelerate investment in grid capacity to link these projects to our cities and towns. Britain already faces a growing problem of having to turn off significant amounts of renewable power when the grid is constrained, and this will increase sharply unless we deliver the required grid upgrades in time.”
Ashutosh Padelkar, GB Research Associate, Aurora Energy Research, comments:
“Delivering the grid upgrades planned by Ofgem and National Grid would require nearly 10,000 km of additional transmission lines: a very tall order. Long-duration energy storage (LDES) technologies could provide a useful complementary solution to rising curtailment alongside grid expansion, but the lack of a route to market for these technologies is a barrier to investment. The government has a key role to play: introducing mechanisms like revenue cap and floor could help de-risk investment and support the deployment of LDES at a low cost to consumers.”
1 Or by 100% from 1990 levels
3 Under this scenario, authorities fail to deliver energy market regulator Ofgem’s planned upgrades under the Accelerated Strategic Transmission Investment (ASTI) framework by 34%.
4 Ofgem’s ASTI framework covers 26 grid expansion projects deemed strategically important; National Grid’s Holistic Network Design (HND) assessment covers the investment projects needed to connect 23 GW of offshore wind.
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Megan Tracey, European Press Officer
megan.tracey@auroraER.com | +44 (0)7810 817354
From its Oxford academic roots, Aurora Energy Research has grown to become the largest dedicated power market analytics company in Europe, providing data-driven intelligence for strategic decisions in the global energy transformation. We are a diverse team of more than 450 experts with vast energy, financial, and consulting backgrounds, covering power, hydrogen, carbon, and fossil commodities. We are active in Europe, Australia, and the US, working with world-leading organisations to provide comprehensive market intelligence, bespoke analytic and advisory services, and cutting-edge software.