Our transition to a post-carbon world is underway thanks to a multi-billion pound outlay by SP Energy Networks, part of ScottishPower, to create the infrastructure necessary so that we can ditch fossil fuels and embrace clean energy, says Andrew Collier.
Getting the energy transition right is something that is vital to all our futures. It does, however, require huge commitment and financial investment. Power networks have to be prepared for the reality and demands of a post-carbon world.
ScottishPower is a leading player in green energy – it has now shifted completely to zero carbon generation – and is getting ready for this revolution. It is putting billions of pounds into preparing its transmission and distribution networks for what is to come.
The company’s planned spending includes £3.2 billion on the infrastructure and upgrades that will be needed to support this transition and to help ensure that the UK meets its net zero targets.
A further £2bn is being invested in its transmission business, making a total spend of more than £5bn in the network’s future.
If this investment is huge – and it is – then so is the scale of the challenge. There are expected to be about 30 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the roads by the year 2050. In addition to this, 22 million heat pumps will be installed in homes across the UK.
“Scotland is the major powerhouse in the UK in terms of renewables”, says Scott Mathieson, SP Energy Networks’ Director of Regulation and Planning.
“The investment we are making allows us to play a major role not only in Britain realising its carbon targets for 2050 and the Scottish Government meeting its own ones by 2045, but also in exporting our power across into Europe and supporting other countries.”
Transport and heat systems are the two main areas of energy use that need to be addressed to achieve net zero carbon, he adds. “So we’re looking at how we can use the distribution system more flexibly. Through innovative approaches, we’ve been looking to release every kilowatt hour that we can.
“We need to get more capacity while maintaining the security of supply and quality of service our customers enjoy. It’s an ageing network and we really need to invest ahead of need.
“We have to identify how our customers are going to electrify their transport and how heat systems are going to change. We’ve done a lot of work analysing literally hundreds of thousands of electrical circuits within our communities, looking at where we think the network will be most impacted.”
The changes required by this green revolution are likely to be dramatic. SP Energy Networks is predicting that by 2030 its infrastructure will need to accommodate one and a half million electric vehicles as well as up to 800,000 air source heat pumps.
“That means we need to understand where the bottlenecks will be on the distribution system as well as where the risks are. We’ve surveyed 14,000 stakeholders from domestic and vulnerable customers through to new businesses to make sure our plans are tailored to address the net zero agenda.”
The new investment, he stresses, will not dramatically impact consumers’ bills. “We can hold prices pretty much where they are. Our customers and our stakeholders are sending the clear message that there is no time to waste on this journey.
“The investment has to be efficient, but we need to make sure that it’s happening. We are only going to be moving the dial by pennies and pounds to deliver this.”
Mr Mathieson stresses that the advantages of the programme are far broader than just upgrading the network, hugely important though that is.
“There are societal benefits too. It will lead to far lower emissions as well as more employment. We are talking about creating about 1400 jobs in the next five years – not just in traditional electrical engineering and industrial disciplines, but also in areas such as data science and customer service.
“Another thing is that we need our highly skilled and highly trained workforce to be based in local communities they serve. We want people close to the network. And on top of that, for every job that we create in our business, there are another three to four support jobs in other ones.”
Development projects have already started. One example is the funding of an electric bus and two chargers at First Bus’s depot in the Gorbals, Glasgow in order to prove that this can be an effective and reliable form of city transport.
“We have now done that and they are taking forward 150 chargers in that depot that will support something like 300 electric buses. For us, that’s the same as connecting something like 6,000 to 12,000 domestic premises into the grid. We’ve had to invest £1.5 million in a new primary substation.”
The network also has to be built to cope with future demand. Scotland’s current transmission system currently supports about 11 gigawatts of renewable electricity.
However, it is expected in the next 10 to 15 years, another 20 gigawatts of offshore wind power will need to be connected in. Export capacity –currently 6.6 gigawatts, also needs to grow to 20 gigawatts by 2035.
This, Scott Mathieson explains, is why another £2bn is being invested in the transmission system. “The stronger this is, the greater our resilience and security of supply.
“Everyone is trying to push the deadlines for net zero forward, and for us to meet our long term target this level of investment will need to be sustained over the next couple of decades.
“That’s also really good news in terms of creating jobs and careers – not just in the Central Belt, but in rural areas too. We must deliver good quality service and security of supply.
“It really is a wonderful thing to be involved in. We’ve been able to bring in people from Europe and beyond and it’s great for diversity too.
“To play such a pivotal role in delivering net zero is tremendously exciting.”
On station to meet the green energy challenge
The changes we will see in the way we live over the next three decades or so will be truly massive. The drive to net zero means that by 2050, there are likely to be 30 million electric vehicles on the UK’s roads.
There will also be a dramatic shift in the way we heat our homes, with 22 million heat pumps installed. But this new, greener way of living in the future requires massive investment now.
Earlier this month, SP Energy Networks set out its plans to spend £3.2 billion between 2023 and 2028 to meet this challenge. Upgrades to the distribution network are needed to connect an additional five gigawatts of renewable generation that will support this energy revolution.
The work will include building out more than 800 kilometres of cables and constructing 700 substations. More than 1000 jobs will also be recruited across Scotland, the north west of England and parts of Wales.
The huge investment that is planned will play an important role in helping the UK to meet its climate ambitions. Frank Mitchell, the Chief Executive of SP Energy Networks, explains that the scale of the task in hand cannot be underestimated.
“We must deliver one of the largest and fastest upgrades of our critical infrastructure that this country has ever seen. We provide an essential public service, keeping the electricity flowing to six million people across 3.5 million homes and businesses.
“This is an important and privileged role and one we never take for granted, but it’s about so much more than just keeping the lights on.
“This investment is vital and with 100 days to go until COP26 [the United Nations’ climate change conference in Glasgow], this plan shows our commitment to getting the job done for our communities across the UK.”
The aim, Mr Mitchell adds, is to increase already very high levels of customer satisfaction and to ensure that no-one is left behind in the energy transition.
Over the next two decades, we expect to see demand rise significantly as millions more electric vehicles and heating systems come online.
“Our network has served us well over the last 50 years. Now is the time to invest so that it stands ready to continue that service in a truly decarbonised future.”
This article is brought to you in partnership with Scottish Power as part of The Herald’s 100 Days of Hope campaign.