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Big, bright future: how the UK is transforming its electricity grid

<span>51% of the UK’s energy in 2023 came from zero-carbon sources – making it the cleanest ever year for energy generation.</span><span>Illustration: Christopher Delorenz/The Guardian</span>
51% of the UK’s energy in 2023 came from zero-carbon sources – making it the cleanest ever year for energy generation.Illustration: Christopher Delorenz/The Guardian

For decades, Britain’s energy supply has been inextricably linked with the humble cuppa. At moments of great communing, such as the climax of a big football match or a dramatic plotline on EastEnders, millions of people at a time get up and switch on their kettles. We might take the resulting tea for granted, but in control rooms across the national electricity grid, technicians are primed to protect our brews on such occasions.

The highest recorded surge in demand – known in the sector as a “TV pickup” – followed England’s semi-final loss to Germany in the 1990 World Cup. At 2,800MW, it was enough to power more than a million kettles. It’s not just telly; the grid recorded smaller surges – about 800MW – in 2020 when people went back inside after the weekly rounds of “clap for carers” to show support for NHS staff during the Covid pandemic lockdowns.

These surges are just outlying examples of the challenges the UK’s electricity grid faces every day as it powers our lives. Then, there’s another fundamental issue: is the grid that served us well in the past the grid we need to power our lives tomorrow?

To understand what National Grid, the company that builds and maintains the UK’s electricity grid infrastructure, is planning, and why it matters to us all, let’s quickly journey back half a century ...

How has our energy supply changed?
Until about 1960, coal provided the vast majority of Britain’s energy needs. Hundreds of coalmines fed vast, polluting power stations that pumped electricity from the heart of the country into the extensive grid of cables that still reach our homes today.

Britain’s energy mix has undergone a remarkable transformation in six decades. Last year was the UK’s cleanest year on record for energy generation, with 51% of the country’s electricity coming from zero-carbon sources – including 36% from wind, hydro and solar power – and less than 1% from coal. The amount of UK electricity generated from fossil fuels in 2023 dropped by 22% year on year and on 21 December, windfarms generated 21.8GW of electricity – the highest ever on record.

Why is demand for clean energy rising?
As the climate crisis becomes ever more urgent, the shift from fossil fuels to renewables is a vital part of the UK’s mission to meet net zero targets. In 2021, the government committed to fully decarbonising the grid by 2035. Nevertheless, gas-powered stations still account for a sixth of all CO2 emissions in the UK.

At the same time, electricity now powers more of our lives. The average UK home already has 13 electrical devices, at least 10 of which get used every day, according to a National Grid poll.

Nationally, consumption is projected to double by 2050. Consider the transition from gas boilers to electric heat pumps, or the uptake of electric cars; there are now more than a million fully electric vehicles on our roads, with registrations tripling in just the past four years.

However, only so much can be done with a power system that evolved in a totally different era. As our reliance on fossil fuels is replaced by renewable sources of energy, which are generated in large part by offshore wind farms, as well as solar, significant new infrastructure is needed to connect that renewable energy from where it’s generated to where it’s needed by UK homes and businesses.

So how can the grid match our needs?
The grid needs to adapt to meet the rising demand for clean energy. To make sure electricity goes to the right places at the right times and at the right price, National Grid is rethinking energy transmission.

The Great Grid Upgrade is the largest overhaul of the UK’s electricity grid in generations and is made up of 17 major infrastructure projects in various parts of the country. From Aberdeenshire and Yorkshire to Norfolk and Essex, new or improved power lines, substations, underground and underwater cables and other infrastructure will increase the grid’s capacity to transmit clean electricity more efficiently across the country, as well as to connect new wind and solar farms. New high-voltage offshore “electrical superhighways” will also connect parts of Scotland to northern England.

Complementing The Great Grid Upgrade, giant undersea interconnector cables that link the UK and its neighbours across the Channel and North Sea are making it easier to trade electricity to get the best supply and price. The new £1.7bn Viking Link interconnector, joining Lincolnshire and southern Jutland in Denmark, can transport enough electricity to power 2.5m UK homes and, according to National Grid, will bring more than £500m in savings for UK consumers in its first 10 years.

Building all this new electricity transmission infrastructure will create an economic ripple effect. The boost is predicted to create 130,000 new jobs, from engineers and surveyors to construction specialists and apprentices, with additional job creation in related sectors such as solar and wind power, as well as the electric vehicle and heat pump markets. And as UK households and businesses adopt these new technologies, we as a nation will be better placed to achieve net zero by 2050 and limit the dangerous effect of greenhouse gases on the Earth’s climate. Replacing expensive imported fossil fuels with cheaper, cleaner domestic sources of energy will also help prevent hikes in energy prices from external geopolitical shocks.

The Great Grid Upgrade will, in the years to come, equip Britain for a new, net zero future. And we can all raise a cuppa to that.

Find out more about The Great Grid Upgrade and the future of clean energy at nationalgrid.com/tggu